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Why evangelical voters support Trump’s policy on refugees — even though evangelical leaders object.

- July 19, 2018

Every year since the passage of the U.S. Refugee Act in 1980, the United States has resettled more refugees than the rest of the world combined.

But that has changed. In 2017, the United States resettled 33,000 refugees, about one-third as many as in 2016 — and less than half the 69,000 refugees resettled in other countries.

What do evangelicals think about U.S. refugee policy? Leaders and lay people are divided. 

The evangelical establishment has objected. Particularly in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, many prominent evangelical leaders, media outlets and organizations made explicitly biblical arguments calling on the United States to welcome more refugees. More than 500 evangelical leaders signed an open letter opposing the Trump administration’s initial entry restrictions, which temporarily suspended refugee resettlement. Signatories included many of the most well-known figures in the evangelical community, including Beth Moore, Max Lucado and Tim Keller. Even the Trump-friendly Christian Broadcasting Network discussed nine biblical passages conveying a responsibility to care for refugees.

We might expect that evangelical leaders’ Bible-based arguments would lead rank-and-file evangelicals to welcome refugees. That’s not what’s happened. Instead, white evangelicals have supported President Trump’s closed-door policies wholeheartedly.

Early in Trump’s presidency, amid marches and airport protests, 76 percent of white evangelicals supported his initial entry ban. There’s been little change since. In one recent poll, 25 percent of evangelicals thought the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees — a smaller proportion than of any other racial, age, educational or religious group polled. Another poll found that when asked whether the United States should prevent all refugees from coming into he country, 44 percent said no — and another 44 percent said yes. Compare that with the public as a whole, which opposes this policy by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, 59 to 31 percent.

Why are lay evangelicals broadly opposed to allowing refugees into the country, defying their leaders? My research shows their position flows from three sources: loyalty to Trump, ideological conservatism, and attention to conservative media. Those factors have led evangelicals to support a policy that their leaders, religious identity, values and beliefs might otherwise lead them to oppose.

How I did my research

I analyzed a survey from 2015 and two from 2016. I examined all respondents, but here I’ll focus on the evangelicals surveyed. The richest of the surveys, the 2016 American National Election Study, asked respondents how much they supported “allowing Syrian refugees to come to the United States” on a 1-to-7 scale. Since evangelical opposition to resettling Syrians in the United States was consistent across the surveys, answers to this question probably provide a reasonable proxy for evangelicals’ attitudes today.

White evangelical Republicans’ attitudes toward refugees are just like those of other white Republicans

White evangelicals overwhelmingly identify as Republicans. Partisanship wins out over evangelical leaders’ biblical arguments. There is essentially no difference between average scores of white evangelical Republicans (2.16) and other white Republicans (2.15) on the 1-to-7 scale. Such is the overwhelming power of partisanship in today’s politics.

Among white Republican evangelicals, Trump, political conservatism and Fox News matter (a lot)

White evangelical Republicans who strongly supported Trump, identified as politically conservative and regularly watched Fox News were especially opposed to bringing Syrian refugees onto U.S. soil. Evangelical Republicans who regard Trump more favorably than the Republican average were 1.3 points more opposed to resettlement than their evangelical counterparts with less favorable views of Trump. Conservatism mattered less, but among Republican evangelicals, political conservatives favored refugee resettlement by 0.4 points less than did other evangelical Republicans. And evangelical Republicans who said they watched Fox News favored bringing refugees to the United States by 0.8 points less than evangelical Republicans who didn’t watch Fox News.

A single poll can’t show that Fox News causes people to feel this way, since immigration hard-liners are probably more likely to watch the network. However, other research finds that watching Fox News does influence political attitudes. Presumably, Fox News at least reinforces attitudes toward refugees.

Fox News may also minimize the conflict between evangelical leaders and Trump’s position. Not every evangelical influencer wants to bring refugees to the United States. In particular, Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, has supported a blanket ban on Muslim immigration and defended the entry ban. According to my analysis of data collected as part of the GDELT Project, which preserves television news content from more than 150 stations, during the 2016 campaign Fox News mentioned or interviewed Graham on 38 separate days. Only 35 percent of evangelical pastors said they had “specifically addressed the Syrian refugee crisis from the pulpit.” Presumably, then, many evangelicals heard about this issue more from Graham than from other evangelical sources.

But religion still matters (some)

To be sure, many evangelicals are eager to welcome refugees. All the findings reported above are about white evangelicals.

As political scientist Janelle Wong pointed out here at TMC, white evangelicals differ from their evangelical sisters and brothers on many political issues, including refugees. On the ANES question, the white evangelical average of 2.5 support for resettling refugees in the United States was almost a full point lower than the 3.4 average for Americans at large. Minority evangelicals matched the public’s average of 3.4. Many evangelicals want to bring Syrian refugees to the United States — just not many white evangelicals.

In addition, people who attend religious services almost every week or more were 0.3 points more supportive of resettlement than those who attend less often or never. That link between attending religious services and greater support for refugee resettlement isn’t unique to evangelicals — it applies across religious traditions.

The issue is politics, not religion

But the differences in attitudes toward refugees based on religious attendance are small, compared with those based on support for Trump, conservatism and viewing of Fox News. When faced with a potential conflict between prominent evangelicals’ biblical pro-refugee arguments and Trump’s opposition, the vast majority of white evangelicals choose Trump.

To the chagrin of some evangelicals, it’s hard to see much change on the horizon. White evangelicals have favored Trump more and more as his presidency has continued. That’s a trend the new Supreme Court vacancy is likely to reinforce. It’s difficult to imagine what would change evangelicals’ minds now.

Brian Newman is professor of political science at Pepperdine University.