Over the past few weeks, religious leaders have emerged as some of the strongest critics of President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that has resulted in the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.’s southern border. More than 600 members of the United Methodist Church brought a formal complaint against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is a Methodist, saying that the policy violates church rules and may constitute child abuse. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also spoke out harshly, calling family separation immoral.
After a firestorm of protest, Trump issued an executive order on Wednesday ending the family separation policy. But it’s not clear how much damage to his popularity and credibility has already been done, particularly among white evangelical Protestants. This group has been a bedrock of Trump’s base since he was elected, so it would be a big deal if — as some have predicted — the images and sounds of children being removed from their families and placed in cages and warehouses were to diminish his support among conservative evangelicals.
Right now, however, even though some white evangelical leaders have condemned Trump and the family separation policy, there’s no evidence that their followers are poised to turn on the president. Indeed, there are a couple of reasons to think many white evangelicals will react differently than their leaders who have criticized Trump. Understanding evangelicals’ broader perspective on immigration can also help illuminate why this group continues to support Trump so strongly — despite recent scandals that appear to fly in the face of evangelicals’ values.1
First, polling on white evangelical Protestants has shown that they’re more likely than any other religious group to support hardline immigration policies and to have negative views of immigrants overall. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants are in favor of expanding the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, compared with only around half of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics and much lower shares of other religious groups. Another Pew survey, conducted last year, found that while majorities of nearly every religious group agree that immigrants strengthen our country, white evangelical Protestants are more divided, with a plurality (44 percent) saying that immigrants are a burden.
These findings line up with results from other surveys too, like a 2017 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute that found that white evangelical Protestants were the only religious group in which a majority (57 percent) said they’re bothered when they encounter immigrants who don’t speak English. They were also the likeliest to say that they have little or nothing in common with immigrants.
Daniel Cox, the research director at PRRI,2 said these findings help explain why evangelicals aren’t likely to abandon Trump over the child separation crisis, even if they’re troubled by it. “More than other groups, white evangelical Protestants seem to perceive immigrants as a threat to American society,” he said. “So even if they don’t like this particular policy, they’re on board with Trump’s approach to immigration in general, and that makes it likelier that they’ll see this as a tactical misstep rather than a breaking point.” That’s also how some evangelical leaders have responded; for example, Jentezen Franklin, a Georgia megachurch pastor who serves on Trump’s evangelical advisory council, criticized the family separation policy in an interview with FiveThirtyEight but blamed Congress — rather than Trump — for failing to act. “The president really cares for these families, but to permanently fix the problem, he needs Congress to do their job and work with him on border security,” Franklin said, adding that many evangelicals were drawn to Trump because of his emphasis on reducing the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
And while many other Christian leaders, including the Catholic bishops, have criticized the policy based on the biblical injunction to care for the poor and the stranger, several prominent evangelicals have emphasized the need to obey the law and defer to the president’s authority. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church and a strong Trump supporter, told FiveThirtyEight that the separation of children from their parents was “disturbing” but quickly added that Trump has the “God-given responsibility” to secure the border in the way he deems appropriate and punish people breaking the law, even if it appears harsh.
That deference to law and order is fundamental to the way evangelicals think about immigration policy. A 2015 poll by LifeWay Research, a Baptist-affiliated research organization, found that although a strong majority (72 percent) of evangelicals agreed that “immigration reform should protect the unity of the immediate family,” even more believed that “immigration reform should respect the rule of law” (88 percent) and “guarantee secure national borders” (86 percent). Partisanship and racial anxieties are also likely playing a role, said Janelle Wong, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and the author of a new book on evangelicals and immigration. “Evangelicals are in a difficult position because of their emphasis on supporting the traditional family,” she said. “But here, if you strongly support the president’s overall strategy on immigration and see immigrants as dangerous lawbreakers — some even blame the parents for putting their children in this position — it’s easier to justify.”
These kinds of arguments won’t necessarily work forever. Past PRRI polling has shown that younger white evangelicals are much likelier than older white evangelicals to believe that immigrants strengthen the country or to agree that immigrants are the victims of discrimination, which may reduce their support for restrictionist immigration policies in the long term. But for now, it seems unlikely that the controversy over the child separation policy will do much — if anything — to diminish Trump’s popularity among this key group.