When President Trump released the first version of his executive order placing a temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim “countries of concern” in January, Ernie Sanders gave the president his full support.
As the host of the radio show "The Voice of Christian Resistance" in Ohio and the president of the local tea party chapter in his area, he’s been worried for a while that allowing Muslims to enter the US could pose a serious danger to the country.
“I’m not so against bringing in refugees,” says Pastor Sanders, echoing the concerns of many evangelical leaders since President Trump issued his controversial executive order, which was halted by federal courts in February. “Like Donald Trump says, I’m against bringing in criminals and young jihadists into this country.”
Yet even when it comes to refugees, he says he worries that allowing too many Muslims into the country could lead to the establishment of Sharia law in American communities, which he believes is counter to what he sees as America’s unique Judeo-Christian heritage.
His views are a window on a larger pattern in America: that among prominent religious groups, evangelical Christians are the most supportive of Mr. Trump on the travel ban policy, and most worried about what a rise in Muslim immigrants would mean for the nation’s identity.
On the one hand, it’s an anomaly. The deep bond between the Trump administration and white Evangelicals has perplexed scholars and observers in the media, who have noted, again and again, the seeming cultural chasms between the Manhattan billionaire’s past lifestyle and conservative Evangelicals’ emphasis on moral character and family values.
Yet in other ways, it makes perfect sense, scholars say. Among the religious groups within the US, the culture of Evangelicalism has maintained both a vivid sense of America as a Christian nation and a deeply-rooted exclusive theology that remains suspicious of those outside the fold.
“I think the biggest thing is that Evangelicals have mixed their faith with the state, making a kind of religious nationalism,” says Pastor Bob Roberts, head of the 3,000-member NorthWood Church, an evangelical congregation in Keller, Texas. “They see it as ‘taking back America,’ as stopping the Muslims from taking over America.”
The exception, in a new poll
The White House says the president will sign a revised executive order attempting to address a federal appeals court’s objections soon. And many religious conservatives of all persuasions fully support Trump’s reasoning, convinced that the nation’s vetting process for refugees has not been up to the task of protecting the American people.
Yet after Trump’s initial order was halted by federal courts in February, support for the ban began to wane among most religious groups, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released last week. Support from Catholics, mainline Protestants, and religious minorities have each dropped. The conspicuous exception is white Evangelicals, for whom support is up.
In all, 76 percent of white Evangelicals said they approved of the temporary ban on refugees from these Muslim countries, according to another survey by Pew Research released this week. That compares with 50 percent of mainline Protestants, 36 percent of Catholics of all races, and 10 percent of black Protestants, the survey found. Overall, about 4 of 10 Americans currently approve of the controversial immigration ban.
A battle over Evangelicalism
Pastor Roberts has grown concerned by what he sees as Islamophobia among fellow Evangelical Christians.
“There is a battle right now for what Evangelicalism is really all about,” says Roberts, who has worked with Muslim leaders around the world to foster interfaith fellowship. “Older Evangelicals supported Trump en masse, but this is not nearly as strong among younger Evangelicals.”
For the past decade, Millennials within the politically powerful American subgroup have begun to shift their views during ongoing culture war battles over same sex marriage and racial reconciliation. And, like Roberts, many have developed a willingness to engage their Muslim neighbors with fellowship and even inter-religious worship.
Last month, too, hundreds of Evangelical leaders, many of them involved in overseas Christian ministries helping refugees in Muslim countries, expressed loud objections to the president’s temporary ban after he signed it in January. Many had also been vociferous critics of Trump's words and past actions during the campaign.
A base of support for Trump
Even so, during last year's election, rank-and-file Evangelicals, who make up about 25 percent of the electorate and have long constituted the Republican Party’s most faithful base of support, supported Trump overwhelmingly, and remain among the president’s most loyal supporters. More than 8 in 10 voted for Trump, a higher share than supported George W. Bush during his two presidential victories.
Scholars note that this overwhelming support comes with a number of caveats. Though wide, it may not be as deep it may appear, as many Evangelicals voted strategically, with the open Supreme Court seat and an abiding antipathy for Hillary Clinton leading many to choose Trump last year.
Evangelicalism is also diverse. It encompasses staid middle-class Calvinists, members of nondenominational megachurches with flashy TV evangelists teaching a "prosperity gospel," as well as rural, working-class Baptists and Pentecostals.
Sanders, in fact, prefers the term “fundamentalist” to Evangelical. For him, those who compromise conservative principles, like those within liberal mainline denominations, are apostates – or at the very least theologically “spineless.” Fundamentalists, he says, "they’re the people who are the hard-working ones, they’re the ones who get out there, put their boots on the ground, who have a no compromise position.... The apostate church, we look at them as just as much an enemy as we do the radical Muslims."
“And as I told folks on my radio program, I told them, 'Mark those folks, if you see Hillary signs in their yards,” he says. “Those people are not your friends, they’re your enemies if you’re a conservative, God-fearing person.”
While Sanders could be considered a part of a long tradition of fundamentalist suspicion and separatism on one end of the Evangelical spectrum, his general suspicion of those outside the fold has deep historical roots, scholars say.
Controversy at Wheaton College
Last year, Wheaton College, one of the top Evangelical institutions of higher education in the country, forced out a member of its political science faculty, Larycia Hawkins, after she donned a hijab to express what she calls "embodied solidarity" with Muslims as incidents of violence and prejudice became more common over the past few years. The first black woman to receive tenure at Wheaton, she also said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, which caused an uproar among alumni and the administration, who accused her of violating the college's theological statement, which each faculty member must sign and adhere to.
“The broader response from the evangelical world in the United States to my wearing a hijab was partly a kind of detestation of the notion that someone could put on something that is symbolic of a religion, and put on in religious solidarity, and still maintain my religious purity," says Professor Hawkins, now the Abd el-Kader Visiting Faculty Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. “My otherness, my blackness, my femaleness – the fact that I’m ‘other’ already made my body and the picture I posted on Facebook even more anathema to people.”
“Really, what I see with the current evangelical retrenchment around immigration –and this willingness not to engage the narrative of Scripture in its totality, including the prophets’ and Jesus’s words about welcoming foreigners and the strangers in the land – has to do, I think, with the fact that Evangelicals have asserted a white Christianity on top of citizenship,” she continues.
Historical roots of separatism
For historians of religion, this wariness of outsiders in many ways goes back the country's early Puritan settlers, separatists who wanted to create a kind of utopian society rooted in proper theological and Biblical principles. Add to that, too, American Evangelicalism's long ambivalence with regard to race.
“The notion of a nation with more visible Muslim communities doesn’t comport with ‘the city on a hill’ or this notion that America is and always has been a Christian nation,” says Randall Balmer, chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and a leading historian of Evangelicalism in the US.
“And in some ways, this has happened once before,” he says. During the period of urbanization and industrialization near the turn of the 20th century, many Evangelical Protestants reacted to the influx of Catholic, Jewish, and eastern European immigrants with alarm.
“And the response on the part of many Evangelicals was to lapse into apocalyptic language and an interpretation that saw the country on the verge of collapse,” Professor Balmer says. “To look around and see the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan – it just didn’t look like the precincts of Zion, or the city on a hill.”
Immigration Act of 1924
Such fears, which extended well beyond America’s religious culture and included secular notions of an American exceptionalism, contributed to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely curtailed the immigration of Asians, southern and eastern Europeans, including Italians and Jews, and others who were seen as dangers to the “purity” of the American Protestant character.
Hawkins notes another trend at that time. The experience of the Scopes “monkey” trial in the 1920s contributed to Evangelicals withdrawing from civic engagement as “modernist” ideas and Darwinian science became cultural norms –and led the emergence of a separatist fundamentalism. It was only until the culture wars that dawned in the 1960s that Evangelicals began to reemerge as a powerful force in politics, culminating in their ardent support for Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party ever since.
'There really is a fear ...'
And like many historians, Balmer notes that the rise of the religious right in the 1960s and 1970s had more to do with a reaction to the desegregation of the public school system, and their efforts to establish private Christian academies, rather than issues surrounding abortion or human sexuality.
Many of the cultural controversies over evolution, the role of women, and racial integration, shaped in the 20th century, remain current today, scholars say. Many Evangelicals, for example, have sought to opt out of participating in civic duties surrounding the the legalization of same-sex marriage, seeing this as incursion into their deeply-held religious beliefs – a compromise of their own theological purity and a violation of their religious conscience.
“Muslims are perceived as a threat from without, coming now within,” observes Roberts, the evangelical pastor in Texas. “There really is a fear that … they are taking over America, and that this new wave of immigrants will bring even more Muslims to America.”
The threats of terrorism are legitimate and real, he says, but Evangelicals “are more fearful of Muslims getting a larger footprint in America than they already have."
Editor's note: Wheaton College responds that it is "not true" that the college “forced out” Dr. Hawkins. Hawkins was suspended amid an official investigation. Wheaton's provost initially recommended the college terminate Hawkins's employment, but withdrew that and apologized for contributing to a "fracture" between Hawkins and the school. In the wake of the investigation, they "jointly announced a mutual agreement to part ways."
The story has also been updated to accurately reflect that it was members of the Wheaton college administration, not the board, who accused Hawkins of violating the college's theological statement.