As the debate over refugees, terrorism, and Islam continued to swirl yesterday, some of you probably saw this story pop up on social media:
“Christian groups break with GOP over Syrian refugees,” claimed the headline of this Politico story. Nahal Toosi reported that:
Evangelical Christians, as well as Christians more broadly, are a core group in the Republican electoral base and are among the most passionate advocates for aiding refugees….
Even though many on the Christian right have reservations about immigration overall, and may in particular be unhappy about people who illegally enter the United States, there’s long been a recognition that refugees fall under a different category.
Would that it were so! I would feel better about the world and my corner of it.
But much as I want to believe that my fellow evangelicals want nothing to do with Republican demagoguery over refugees from ISIS, what’s actually reported in the story is less than convincing on this front. Toosi’s only evangelical source is Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief. The story cites no evidence of evangelical distancing from GOP stances other than Yang’s claim that most of World Relief’s constituents “want to continue to work with refugees, that what happened in Paris… doesn’t reflect who refugees are.”
Now, I love what World Relief does (e.g., resettling refugees) and would certainly define it as “evangelical.” I’ve even met Jenny Yang at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, was not at all surprised to see her named one of Christianity Today‘s “50 Women You Should Know,” and would no doubt agree with her position on this issue. (For that matter, our department recently sponsored a campaign designed to boost awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees and raised money to help those being resettled in Germany.)
But while World Relief is the humanitarian relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, which issued its own pro-refugee statement yesterday, I’m not convinced that either organization speaks for anything more than a minority of self-described evangelicals on these matters. Nor that my department nor I are typical of the evangelical movement, such as it exists with any coherence. (For the record, at least one person who gave money to our refugee campaign asked to get it back after learning of the attacks in Paris.)
In late September the Pew Research Center asked Americans about their response to President Obama’s decision to accept more refugees. Overall, a slender majority (51%) supported the president, with 45% opposing his decision and 4% not sure. But among white evangelicals, things were very different: nearly two in three disagreed with the decision to accept more refugees; only 31% agreed with it. Contrast that with the relatively high levels of support among Catholics (59%), black Protestants (58%), and religiously unaffiliated (60%).
And that was before the recent attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Kenya raised the supposed specter of refugee resettlement becoming a mechanism for ISIS and similar groups to smuggle terrorists into the American homeland. Are we to believe that rank-and-file evangelicals or their pastors are now more likely to welcome refugees — at least, non-Christian refugees — from the Middle East?
Probably more accurate is Monday’s Washington Post report by Michelle Boorstein, which quoted one GOP consultant’s assessment that “This [issue] will cross-pressure the evangelical base… There is a tension here in a lot of their circles about — should we support taking any Syrians when it seems like the right thing to do? But their position on immigration is so hard line at the same time.” (Again, there’s a divergence here from the NAE.)
Of course, this just raises evergreen questions like Who’s an evangelical? and What shapes their responses to such issues? That, and the main one I got yesterday in response to my outrage over Islamophobia among fellow evangelicals: Why don’t you just give up the label?
I’ll offer my own take on those questions tomorrow, but in the meantime, I’d be happy to hear from my readers, whether evangelical or not.
Do you think there’s a significant debate within evangelicalism about refugees? What’s guiding evangelical responses to this and related issues? How do we define our terms?