Why Rank-And-File Evangelicals Aren’t Likely To Turn On Trump Over Family Separation

Over the past few weeks, religious leaders have emerged as some of the strongest critics of President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that has resulted in the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.’s southern border. More than 600 members of the United Methodist Church brought a formal complaint against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is a Methodist, saying that the policy violates church rules and may constitute child abuse. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also spoke out harshly, calling family separation immoral.

After a firestorm of protest, Trump issued an executive order on Wednesday ending the family separation policy. But it’s not clear how much damage to his popularity and credibility has already been done, particularly among white evangelical Protestants. This group has been a bedrock of Trump’s base since he was elected, so it would be a big deal if — as some have predicted — the images and sounds of children being removed from their families and placed in cages and warehouses were to diminish his support among conservative evangelicals.

Right now, however, even though some white evangelical leaders have condemned Trump and the family separation policy, there’s no evidence that their followers are poised to turn on the president. Indeed, there are a couple of reasons to think many white evangelicals will react differently than their leaders who have criticized Trump. Understanding evangelicals’ broader perspective on immigration can also help illuminate why this group continues to support Trump so strongly — despite recent scandals that appear to fly in the face of evangelicals’ values.1

First, polling on white evangelical Protestants has shown that they’re more likely than any other religious group to support hardline immigration policies and to have negative views of immigrants overall. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants are in favor of expanding the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, compared with only around half of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics and much lower shares of other religious groups. Another Pew survey, conducted last year, found that while majorities of nearly every religious group agree that immigrants strengthen our country, white evangelical Protestants are more divided, with a plurality (44 percent) saying that immigrants are a burden.

These findings line up with results from other surveys too, like a 2017 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute that found that white evangelical Protestants were the only religious group in which a majority (57 percent) said they’re bothered when they encounter immigrants who don’t speak English. They were also the likeliest to say that they have little or nothing in common with immigrants.

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