During the Presidential campaign, some Christians warned that Donald Trump could not be trusted to keep his promises to evangelicals. But within just twelve days of Trump’s inauguration, this view was proved to be unfounded as the President reiterated his desire to build a wall along the Mexican border, banned citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the USA and, most importantly for evangelicals, stopped federal money going to international groups who perform or provide information on abortions (see box).
Trump also nominated a conservative judge – Neil Gorsuch – to the Supreme Court. This decision delighted the majority of US evangelicals as Gorsuch is pro-life and is expected to prioritise religious freedom in his rulings. During the campaign, Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) had told Christians to “hold your nose and vote” because “it all boils down to the Supreme Court”. He was effectively telling Christians to vote for Trump, because they’d get a conservative judge in return.
While Gorsuch’s appointment has been widely welcomed, Trump’s travel ban has not. Christians of all denominations are joining with the American courts in challenging Trump’s ruling, which halts refugee admissions for 120 days and suspends refugee admissions from Syria indefinitely. Over 500 well-known evangelicals, including those who rarely comment on politics such as Max Lucado and Tim and Kathy Keller have urged the President to reverse his ban. Their open letter published as a full-page advert in the Washington Post read, “compassion and security can coexist, as they have for decades. For the persecuted and suffering, every day matters; every delay is a crushing blow to hope”.
The evangelical value of safety
Nevertheless, Trump still enjoys support from the American evangelical Church, most notably from Franklin Graham who tweeted: “Cities in Bible times had walls and gates for protection. When there was a threat, the gates were closed – temporarily.” His comment caused a tweetstorm as other evangelicals criticised his interpretation of scripture. Some have even said Graham’s position as President of Samaritan’s Purse – a charity named after the parable of the Good Samaritan – is now untenable.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Eric Metaxas – another high-profile evangelical supporter of the President – said Trump’s position of “America first” was not to be confused with “cheering for America only”.
“It means if you want to care for your neighbours, you have to make sure that you are yourself, first, healthy. Just like they say on the plane: Take your own mask first before you help the person next to you…Trump errs on the side of bluster sometimes for effect, but I don’t think that the people who voted for him, most of them, would ever be for not caring for immigrants or refugees. People in the church know it’s our obligation. The only question is how.”
The argument is Trump’s travel ban is justified on the basis of protecting America from terrorism. But pastor and author Skye Jethani believes the issue of safety is overplayed. Speaking on the Phil Vischer podcast, Jethani commented: “Over the last decades we’ve seen the growing importance within evangelicalism of the value of safety – we want to listen to radio that’s ‘safe for the whole family’. I remember growing up in the 80s and hearing ‘if you let your kids listen to rock ‘n’ roll they’ll be taken over by demonic forces’. There’s this paranoia and fearfulness.
“This core value of safety permeates the evangelical culture. So now when the threat is militant jihadist Islam and people say ‘they’re going to come into our country as refugees’, Franklin Graham and others appeal to that value – we equate safety with a Christian virtue. Protecting my family and my borders is seen as a Christian value.” Jethani believes this is misguided. Should Christians place so much emphasis on protecting themselves when the gospel calls us to take risks and expect persecution, rather than seek our own comfort and safety?
Looking closer to home
The outrage at the US President has been as strong in the UK as it has been in parts of the USA. Twenty thousand Brits protested Trump’s travel ban in locations including Downing Street, Edinburgh and Cambridge.
Less than two weeks after this protest, the UK government said they would only be allowing 350 unaccompanied refugee children into the country (Lord Dubs had previously said 3,000 should be allowed in). The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who is himself housing a refugee family inside Lambeth Palace, said he was “saddened and shocked” by the announcement and Krish Kandiah of Home for Good said the new figure was “woefull inadequate”. But there were no largescale protests and not nearly as much media coverage on this issue. Why did so many British people protest US immigration policy at the apparent neglect of UK immigration policy?
Here’s what the first twelve days of Donald Trump’s presidency looked like:
- Jan 20th President Trump’s inauguration
- Jan 21st The Women’s March takes place, with 4 million taking part around the world
- Jan 23rd Trump signs an executive order (EO) which bans federal money going to international groups which perform abortions
- Jan 25th Trump signs an EO which instructs the Department of Homeland security to build a wall on the Mexican border
- Jan 27th Trump signs an EO which suspends the Refugee Admission programme.
- Mike Pence becomes the first vice president to speak at March for Life and says the Trump administration will advance the fight against abortion
- Jan 31st Trump nominates Neil Gorsuch as an associate justice of the Supreme Court
Lord Carey has raised a similar point. Writing in the Sunday Express, the former Archbishop of Canterbury claimed a “staggering overreaction” is taking place. “In contemporary world terms, there is a long list of dictators and tyrants who are in front of Trump as ‘the world's worst politician’…I cannot recall such demonstrations against terrible and autocratic regimes such as Burma, Sudan and North Korea. It is one of the key characteristics of those who consider themselves progressive to reserve condemnation for America, ‘the West’, or Israel and ignore actual evil-doers.”
A zero sum game
American politics has long been divisive. The two-party system can result in a zero-sum game where everything Trump does is either evil or fantastic, depending on your viewpoint. It’s hard to find a nuanced opinion. Plenty of Trump’s supporters won’t criticise even his most extreme policies (the travel ban) while his critics are slow to praise any positive developments (standing up for persecuted Christians).
The Huffington Post has been notoriously critical of Trump – during the campaign they included an editor’s note which called Trump a liar, racist and misogynist at the bottom of their news stories. This has since been removed and the website’s founder Arianna Huffington has written that the “perpetual outrage” needs to end.
“This is no way to live. Literally. We’re only 17 days in, and people are already exhausted by it. Trump hasn’t invaded any countries (yet), but he’s certainly invaded our minds and hearts.
“If we live in a perpetual state of outrage, Trump wins. Because when we become depleted and exhausted, and sapped of our energy, we’re not as resourceful, creative, or effective… Don’t let yourself get stuck in the outrage storm – that particular weather pattern is likely to be here for a long time.”
Christians who oppose Trump may have to ask where the line is between righteous anger and unrighteous hysteria. Proverbs says “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end” (29:11) and James cautions “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19). At the same time, there is a growing consensus among US evangelicals that the travel ban is one step too far and anger is warranted because this is a moral, rather than political issue. As Lynne Hybels has said: “For some people, embracing refugees is a political issue. For me, as a Christian, speaking up for and caring for refugees is more an act of worship and obedience to a God whose Kingdom is global.”
Sam Hailes is the deputy editor of Premier Christianity magazine