Evangelical Protestants are on fire to help Syrian refugees. Except, they’re not. As Chris Gehrz points out, journalists who jump too quickly to define the “evangelical” position on refugees usually miss the boat.
There’s no doubt that leading evangelical organizations have taken the lead on welcoming refugees. The National Association of Evangelicals, for example, has warned policy-makers not to let fear of terrorists get in the way of Christian charity. As President Leith Anderson put it,
We are horrified and heartbroken by the terrorist atrocities in Paris, but must not forget that there are thousands more victims of these same terrorists who are fleeing Syria with their families and desperately need someplace to go.
At flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, too, editor Mark Galli has recently reminded Americans of their moral requirement to welcome and assist refugees.
As usual, though, Professor Chris Gehrz asks a more complicated and insightful question: Do such official and quasi-official statements really represent the thinking of most evangelicals? Gehrz worries it does not. He cites recent poll data that show large majorities of white evangelicals opposing a pro-refugee policy.
Gehrz wonders if other prominent evangelical voices might have more pull than do Galli or Anderson. For instance, what about Franklin Graham’s warning that Islam is a clear and present danger? In a Facebook post, Graham wrote,
We cannot allow Muslim immigrants to come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war of terror. If we continue to allow Muslim immigration, we’ll see much more of what happened in Paris – it’s on our doorstep.
Similarly, at evangelical WORLD Magazine, Cal Thomas has called a pro-refugee policy “wishful thinking.” Even US passport-holders, Thomas writes, should not be allowed back into the country if they have visited countries that host ISIS training camps.
Christian charity means loving the safety of the neighbor next door at least as much as loving the safe passage of the neighbor far away. It’s not unreasonable or unfeeling to think that in some cases supplying refugee camps with humanitarian aid or protecting safe havens elsewhere could be a responsible approach that avoids the risks of immediate resettlement in the United States.
Those of us who aren’t evangelical Christians should learn a couple of important lessons from this back-and-forth. First, as I’m arguing in my current book about evangelical higher education, there is no simple way to define “evangelical” in strictly religious terms. Throughout the twentieth century, at the very least, to be an evangelical has meant an irreducible blend of religious, cultural, political, and social identities. It may be tempting to try for a clean-and-clear religious definition of “evangelical,” but the term has always been and will always be a mix of things.
Second, as Professor Gehrz points out, we need to be wary when people tell us about the “evangelical” position on any question, political or even theological.
What do “evangelicals” think about refugees? All sorts of things.