Will America’s Christians welcome Afghanistan’s refugees? It depends

The difference between how the majority of Christians in America feel about the border and how a conservative minority of evangelicals feel about the border may have broad consequences for the fate of refugees from Afghanistan.

At least symbolically, we have long been a beacon to the world’s less fortunate. Now, things are changing.

Harrowing images from the Kabul airport have highlighted the desperation and fear of citizens who, for a variety of reasons, are trying to escape the Taliban. Previously, America was the country that many refugees looked to for help and safety. At least symbolically, we have long been a beacon to the world’s less fortunate. Now, things are changing. Hard-line evangelical Republicans who voted for former President Donald Trump are the group most likely not to want immigrants and refugees coming to the U.S.

According to a survey last year from the Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelical Protestants were most likely believe immigrants threaten American cultures and values. And 80 percent of Americans who believe the country should be declared a Christian nation also think America should decrease its number of refugees, according to a proprietary dataset measured and compiled by sociologist Samuel Perry and psychology researcher Joshua Grubbs.

Instead of “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” some Americans are telling the tired and the poor to get lost.

Issues like immigration have shown how some white evangelicals have started to turn inward, rejecting immigration and refugee resettlement. This hardening of hearts was encouraged by the Trump administration. Now it is affecting policy at a crucial moment for America’s perceived moral standing around the world.

This is in contradiction to the Bible’s admonition in Matthew 25 to welcome the stranger. Instead, a popular Republican strategy has been to make sure immigrants are seen as the enemy.

But immigration policy isn’t the only factor here. Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of “Jesus and John Wayne,” suggests that “militant masculinity trumps the Bible.” Ideas about Islam and terrorism become a “racialized masculinity,” as Du Mez terms it. This dovetails with Samuel Perry’s research that has found a correlation between “Christian nation” beliefs and strong resistance to refugees and immigration. In other words, the belief that America is a white, strong Christian nation is becoming tied to protectionism. Christian America must be protected from outsiders who are of other religious faiths and ethnicities.

But it’s a complex issue, with multiple schools of thought within the Christian community and even among the evangelical community. Take the letter sent by the Evangelical Immigration Table, a “broad coalition of evangelical organizations and leaders advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values,” to President Joe Biden on Tuesday. The coalition, consisting of the National Evangelical Association, the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and Bethany Christian Services, along with others, called the U.S. government’s commitment to those who qualify for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program a matter of “moral urgency.”

Mainline Protestants have also joined the fray. Biden was pressed back in May by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to evacuate Afghan allies and to execute that humanitarian evacuation before the withdrawal date. That, of course, did not happen.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in support of refugee resettlement, urging the government to act with the utmost urgency, considering all avenues available to preserve life. Catholic Relief Services has been working to resettle Special Immigrant Visa holders for close to 14 years. Catholic Relief Services is well prepared to assist and has done this work for a considerable period of time. Its relief efforts, however, are stretched not only by the crisis in Afghanistan, but also by the earthquake in Haiti.

Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an opinion. Mormons’ fraught history as American outsiders until the 20th century makes them particularly sensitive to the issue of immigration. In August, the church added welcoming refugees to its official handbook. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican and a member of the LDS church, says the state is eager to help with refugees from Afghanistan.

Clearly, the fall of Afghanistan represents a major challenge for Biden, and not only in terms of international policy.

Clearly, the fall of Afghanistan represents a major challenge for Biden, and not only in terms of international policy. The Trump administration’s punitive Muslim ban and immigration policies sent a nationalist message both at home and abroad. Now, Biden’s White House needs to clarify its own position on these issues.

But from a religious standpoint, the crisis in Afghanistan highlights rifts in the American Christian community. Allegiances to the Republican Party can influence denominational immigration ideology, as can Scripture and church history. The topic will also prove, I suspect, to be a major wedge issue in the 2022 and 2024 election cycles for religious voters.

All of these groups however, should focus on the image of the baby that was passed over the wall to a group of Marines at the Kabul airport recently. Arguments in the abstract about immigration are useless when lives are at stake. Let us hope that child, who was thankfully reunited with its father, will find a new place to call home — perhaps even in the United States of America

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