Some of President Donald Trump’s top evangelical advisors have reached a troubling, and somewhat baffling, theological consensus about a restrictions he’s placed on refugees entering the country.
Based on The Huffington Post’s interviews with a few leaders who have the president’s ear, the consensus is this: The Biblical command to welcome, clothe and feed the stranger applies only to churches and individuals. The government doesn’t have to abide by that standard.
In essence, for these evangelicals, their traditional Christian values should have an impact on how the president makes decisions about abortion and same-sex marriage. But on the matter of refugees fleeing war, it’s perfectly fine for the president to turn his face away from suffering, because safety comes before being a Good Samaritan to those in need.
White evangelical Christians’ overwhelming support for Trump helped put him in the White House. As a whole, members of this spiritual tradition have a high regard for the Bible as the source of ultimate moral authority. But beliefs about how to apply Biblical principles to politics can vary greatly ― and the debate about Trump’s “extreme vetting” plan is bringing up some of that tension.
Trump signed an executive order on Friday that establishes new vetting measures to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the country. The order blocks refugees from Syria indefinitely and temporarily bans people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which has helped refugees for decades through the resettlement agency World Relief, called Trump’s plans “alarming.” Other Christian aid groups have also criticized the temporary ban.
But some prominent evangelicals, including a few who were part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, find no problem with it.
Dr. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas who preached a sermon for Trump on inauguration day, told The Huffington Post that he “wholeheartedly” supported the president’s temporary ban on refugees from countries the administration deemed high risk.
“President Trump’s actions are in keeping with the biblical mandate for government to protect its citizens,” Jeffress told HuffPost in an email. “While Scripture commands individual Christians and churches to show mercy to those in need, the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.”
While Scripture commands individual Christians and churches to show mercy to those in need, the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan. Dr. Robert Jeffress
Jeffress also said that he supported the part of the order that exempts persecuted religious minorities from the ban ― which means Christians in Muslim-majority countries could be favored, even though many victims of terror attacks are Muslim.
“There is nothing unconstitutional about President Trump’s policies since non-citizens seeking entry into our country have no constitutional rights,” Jeffress wrote.
Dr. Ronnie Floyd, a senior pastor of Arkansas’ Cross Church who was part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, also told HuffPost that there is a difference between the “God-ordained” responsibility of the government and that of the church.
“Government’s first job is to protect the people and the church’s first job is to serve people. Our church and many churches will continue our extensive efforts to serve the vulnerable here and abroad regardless of what government policy is,” Floyd said in an email. “We don’t advise the government on questions of national security and they don’t advise us on who and how we serve people.”
The New York Times reports that Trump’s evangelical advisory board will continue meeting and giving advice to the president, even though his campaign is over.
Rev. Franklin Graham, an evangelical pastor and president of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, gave HuffPost a similar interpretation of Christian scripture on Wednesday.
“It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue,” Graham, who is not part of the advisory committee but has firmly stood behind Trump since the election, told HuffPost. “We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws. Because of the dangers we see today in this world, we need to be very careful.”
The pastors’ comments reflect fear among American voters about refugees becoming threats to national security. A survey conducted by the Christian research firm LifeWay last year found that while the majority of Protestant pastors (86 percent) agree that Christians have a responsibility to care for refugees and foreigners, many also say that their church has a sense of fear about refugees coming to the United States (44 percent).
But it’s a fear that’s divorced from facts. Refugees already go through a vigorous screening process that takes between 18 to 24 months and involves multiple federal agencies. According to The Cato Institute, the chances of an American citizen being killed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.
For other evangelicals, putting fear over people is simply unjustifiable.
“It’s theological hypocrisy,” Jim Wallis, an evangelical and the founder of progressive Christian outlet Sojourners, told The Huffington Post.
Wallis pointed to the Biblical passage of Matthew 25, which talks of how at the end of times, “all the nations” will be gathered together and their people will be judged according to how they fed the hungry and welcomed strangers.
“Again and again, [the Bible says] that rulers, the government, society will be held accountable to God for how they treat the poor, the stranger, the immigrant,” Wallis said.
Brian McLaren is a Christian author who, with his family and congregation, has been involved with caring for refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Iran, and Ethiopia. He told HuffPost that his ability to live out his faith requires a national policy that makes room for refugees.
McLaren said he’s appalled by Trump’s religious endorsers.
“According to Franklin Graham and others, only individuals have a personal moral duty to be ‘good Samaritans,’ giving nations free reign to be selfish and heartless,” McLaren told HuffPost. “Frankly, Graham is not being a good Samaritan, and I hope Americans will not follow his lead.”
Katelyn Beaty, editor at large at Christianity Today magazine, said that news of the refugee restrictions troubled her because it signaled that the government cared more about ensuring safety against an extremely slim chance of harm to American citizens than about protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
I believe our nation will be judged and remembered for how we treated these neighbors. Katelyn Beaty
“The law can be summarized in two sentences: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” Beaty told HuffPost in an email. “In our globalized world, our neighbors are in some real sense the Syrians who are fleeing their homes under threats of violence and death from ISIS. I believe our nation will be judged and remembered for how we treated these neighbors. “
UPDATE: This article has been updated after more information about President Donald Trump’s executive order became available.