Evangelicals and the Travel ban

Krattenmaker-tomBy Tom Krattenmaker
Award-winning Portland-based writer

When it comes to our acceptance of other people, Jesus enlarged the circle. Love everyone, he taught.

It’s encouraging to see this ethic holding up to some degree in a country where a culture of welcome has been one of our proudest hallmarks — but where fear of immigrants, refugees and Muslims now competes with our inclusive tendencies. Despite scary warnings from the new president, a sizable majority of Americans oppose temporarily banning Muslims from other countries from entering the U.S., as Donald Trump has sought to do.

A poll by Public Religion Research Institute finds that 59 percent oppose such a ban; 35 percent support it.

But a group of outliers, who identify themselves as people who take Jesus and the Bible most seriously, are swimming against the tide. A solid majority of white evangelicals not only support a temporary ban against Muslims, but do so by an increasingly large margin.

PRRI finds that 61 percent of white evangelicals favor a ban, up from the 55 percent figure reported last year when then-candidate Trump called for banning Muslims.

By contrast, 44 percent of white Catholics support a Muslim ban, and just 39 percent of white mainline Protestants. Both with the white Catholics and white mainliners, the support levels are down significantly from last year.

And speaking of dynamics that seem hard to figure out, the group least influenced by Jesus and Christianity is least likely to support the travel ban. Among nonreligious Americans, only 21 percent support the ban.

Before we leap to simplistic conclusions and declare that seculars are more Christian than white evangelicals, it’s instructive to consider the ways in which cultural identity, a.k.a. tribalism — the very problem Jesus addressed with his “love your neighbor” teaching — is influencing these upside-down dynamics.

As has been amply reported, white evangelicals are Trump’s core constituency. To be fair, the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump means about a fifth did not. A good number of high-profile evangelical leaders and writers have powerfully articulated the case against Trump, including Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

But still, why such strong support for a Muslim ban and its chief proponent from those who have been telling us for years they base everything on the Bible?

The hope for a political climate friendlier to them and their faith practices may be one answer. If a presidential candidate promises stricter limits on abortion, a Supreme Court more in sync with conservative Christian priorities, and greater leeway for evangelicals to resist the normalization of same-sex relationships, then Trump it shall be.

Troubling as that is, what’s harder to take are protestations by some prominent conservative Christians that their hard-nosed political positions are not contrary to Jesus or not addressed by the Bible. This, against the backdrop of an evangelical culture that has long emphasized that answers to all of life’s big questions are found in the Bible.

That’s “not a Bible issue,” Franklin Graham declared of the travel ban — a position that since has been thoroughly demolished by Yale Divinity School Bible scholar Joel Baden, among others.

In seeking relief from Jesus’ daunting teachings, some conservative Christians have cited the notion that the Bible applies only to our individual lives, not what we do as a nation.

The dubiousness of that escape hatch is especially clear in light of the Old Testament prophets, who often trained their sights on the nation of Israel — and, by the way, made treatment of vulnerable outsiders a key test of that nation’s character.

So the truth is revealed, and it’s not all that shocking. Despite their carefully cultivated image as the people who are most committed to following the Bible, and who therefore stand on a higher moral plane, when it comes down to it, white evangelicals are strongly influenced by nonbiblical factors.

These include wanting to be safe from terrorism, wanting to maintain a cultural and political landscape more to their liking, and a leeriness about people who are unlike them, whether because of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

With these comes the natural inclination to stick together in political and culture war fights and follow the leader they have chosen.

The sum of these parts? A tendency to live out their religion not mainly or only as Jesus people — which is, after all, a very hard thing to do— but as a tribe.

Does this make Trump-loving, Muslim-banning evangelicals hypocrites? Maybe what it really makes them is human, with all the good and bad that implies.

(Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His new book is “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower”)

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