What Do Evangelicals Actually Think about Refugees?

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.

Jenny YangBut 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.)

Refugees in Budapest train station, Sept. 2015
Refugees sleeping in the Budapest train station earlier this fall – Creative Commons (Rebecca Harms)

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%).

Franklin Graham in 2014
In an October survey by LifeWay, 59% of evangelical pastors agreed with Franklin Graham’s statement that Islam is “a very evil and a very wicked religion” – Creative Commons (Lescek Janczuk)

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?

4 thoughts on “What Do Evangelicals Actually Think about Refugees?

  1. I believe there is a healthy debate within American evangelicalism. Scripturaly there is the admonition to welcome the stranger, yet there are also real fears. I think having those conversations without questioning each other’s faith and values (which has been happening to some degree) are a sign of spiritual maturity and respect. We want to be wise, but the challenge is to not live in fear like so many of our neighbors. This morning, Mr. Hollande asked Parisians’ to not live in fear. America has been fearful since before 2001. I would hope that follower’s of Jesus would be able to head the “fear not” admonitions often repeated in scripture.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I think this is an important point — indeed, I tend to think that evangelicalism is at its best when it can model healthy debate. Lest my post sound too pessimistic (fearful, even), I do hope that this particular issue might prompt such a conversation.

  2. From what I see on some of the news and social media that I read and get, I think there may be a significant number who would consider themselves evangelical, that follow Franklin Graham. He has come out as a fiery anti immigrant speaker. His family connection with Billy Graham gives him a lot of credibility with many in the Christian world who revered his father.

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