In the homestretch of the midterm election campaign, President Trump’s core argument to voters has been that keeping Republicans in power will protect them from a “caravan” of migrants trying to “invade” the United States.
Republican lawmakers and conservative media have rushed to amplify the nativist scare tactics. But one core constituency on the right has remained largely silent.
The Daily Beast contacted more than a dozen top conservative Christian religious leaders with close ties to Trump, and only three of them were willing to talk on the record or issue comments about the president’s approach and policies. Those who did comment either avoided taking firm positions or declined to condemn Trump’s demagoguery on the issue.
“I’m sure the vast majority of the president’s base supports his efforts to secure the borders—including dispatching 5,200 soldiers to deal with the potential threat posed by the caravan,” said Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and a Trump ally. “Every evangelical Christian I know is sympathetic with individuals who are fleeing persecution and are trying to enter our country legally. But when they come as a large group and defiantly vow to cross our borders, that sympathy tends to evaporate.”
When asked about how the vast majority of the caravan likely won’t cross the border and that applying for asylum is legal, Jeffress responded: “Maybe, but I have a feeling most of the president’s supporters don’t want to take that risk. There is no doubt that sending troops to the border will galvanize and energize the president’s base.”
Jeffress isn’t wrong, per se. But his willingness to rationalize the president’s position in political terms, along with the silence of his many of his peers, illustrates the degree to which the Christian right has accommodated the age of Trump.
For years, a more lenient immigration policy, especially toward asylum seekers, was one of the few areas where evangelical leaders broke publicly from elected Republicans. Their reasons for doing so were rooted in scripture, and often those breaks gave cover to GOP lawmakers who also advocated for relative leniency.
Trump is not one of those GOP lawmakers. He has made a hard-line immigration policy the cornerstone of his political appeal, and conservative Christian leaders have not objected.
Even before Trump was elected, they showed a willingness to go along with much of his approach. And the day after Trump was elected, Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told The Daily Beast, “There is nothing in Donald Trump’s position on the need to fix our broken immigration system that is at odds with the principles we laid down in… February 2013.”
In recent weeks, Trump’s positions have grown even more draconian. The president has portrayed a group of several thousand impoverished migrants as a threat to the safety of the United States. He has warned, without evidence, that the caravan was infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners” and gangs. He has dispatched soldiers to the border to confront them, said those soldiers should shoot if confronted by rock-throwers, and hinted that he would dramatically restrict asylum policies.
Faced with this, a sizable number of Reed’s peers have decided on strategic avoidance. Joel Osteen, Gloria and Kenneth Copeland, Paula White-Cain, and Jim Bakker, among others, declined to comment or did not respond to requests to comment on the record.
Gary Bauer, president of the advocacy group American Values, has sparsely tweeted about the caravan in recent weeks. Last month he tweeted: “This invasion of illegal aliens is not spontaneous! It is inspired by our political left who has made it clear they won’t secure our border. Soros and Nancy Pelosi are smiling.”
But reached for comment on Thursday, a spokesperson for Bauer said he did not have time to remark on the matter, even if just to send a one- or two-line email.
James Dobson, founder of the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family, has also remained coy about his stance on the migrant caravan. A staunch Trump supporter, Dobson claimed on the eve of the 2016 election that Trump was “tender to things of the spirit” and has actively supported the Trump’s agenda since the president took office. But when asked for a position on the thousands of migrants walking to the U.S. border, Dobson’s office offered a statement that, notably, didn’t actually address the issue.
“The Dobson Policy Center supports President Trump’s firm stance on immigration policy that protects our borders, our national security, national sovereignty, and ultimately protects our families. A government’s chief legitimate obligation is to protect and preserve the fundamental, unalienable rights endowed by God for its own citizens,” Jenna Ellis, director of public policy for the James Dobson Family Institute, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “We are encouraged by the Trump Administration’s understanding and dedication to the rule of law by providing resolved leadership on this issue, and we support immigration reform consistent with the U.S. Constitution’s process.
She added: “We are supporters of legal immigration and the rule of law by immigration authorities.”
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, issued a similarly vague statement on the caravan late last month, though unlike Dobson, he acknowledged the “real” plight of the migrants while celebrating Trump and bashing Democrats.
The few Trump-aligned pastors who did go to the mat for the president went in with distinctly Trumpian flair. Darrell Scott, a Cleveland-area pastor who served as an official on Trump’s presidential transition team, tweeted last month, “So now the left wing media is spinning this illegal immigrant caravan as a ‘Humanitarian Crisis’? Please stop.”
Two days later, Scott accused liberals and reporters of giving the caravan too much attention, even as Trump has made it clear that he would prefer it to be the defining topic ahead of the midterm elections.
“Everybody in America is getting sick of the Dem’s and the Left Wing Media’s ‘Trump Emergency Crisis of the Week’. From Kavanaugh to the Caravan. Give us a break,” wrote Scott.
Scott didn’t respond to a request for comment to elaborate on his stance, and the spokesperson for his New Spirit Revival Center told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “If you want to speak to the pastor directly about his stance on immigration, you need to put in a media request that may take a couple weeks to process.”
For Trump, the willingness of his evangelical defenders to support his position on the caravan, or to strategically avoid talking about it, certainly is no surprise. Those same leaders have stuck by him during times of personal moral failings and months of continuous political scandal. This week, he explained his appeal by telling the Christian Broadcasting Network, “Nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals.”
For those not aligned with the president, it is yet another point of irritation. Earlier this week, a pastor heckled Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a speech for—in his view—abandoning religious principles. On Friday, Jim Wallis, a Christian political activist who has been described as a progressive evangelical, took his conservative brethren to task for siding with Trump over poor migrants.
“What Jesus thinks and said and meant has no interest for the evangelicals following Donald Trump,” said Wallis. “Now there are a lot [of evangelicals] around the country, particularly black, Hispanic, and young, and others who aren’t chaplains at the court of the king, who do care about this. But how we treat the other is the landmark test. And that’s being violated here because they have made political trade-offs for [right-wing] Supreme Court nominations and religious liberty protections.”
Wallis added, “One of the things they have traded off is Jesus. They’ve just traded Jesus away.”