Conservative religious leaders seem to be putting real pressure on Congress and the administration to create compassionate border policies. But they are doing it carefully—and most of the president’s staunch supporters are not abandoning their leader.
Of all the comments made against the administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” in the last week, Graham’s have been the most surprising. The preacher’s son has recently been on a tour across America encouraging evangelicals to turn out and vote, and his comments on and off the stage are often highly supportive of the president and Republican policy priorities. Outright criticism of a Trump administration policy is unusual for Graham. But his recent comments arguably were more nuanced than that: He also said the president isn’t responsible for the situation at the border. On social media, he reaffirmed his opposition to family separations, but also noted that “many in the media want to portray this as @POTUS’s fault, but this predates him by decades.” He objects to the way the situation at the border has been politicized, he added: “It’s even more disgraceful to see that our political leaders won’t work together in a bipartisan effort to solve this. Some just want to use the situation for their own political gain.”
A number of other religious leaders close to Trump’s inner circle have echoed Graham’s caution. Jentezen Franklin, a mega-church pastor from Gainesville, Georgia, who serves on Trump’s evangelical advisory board, told me in an interview that Trump “really does want to do the right thing for these families and these children.” He condemned Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s use of the Scripture to justify family separations—“I don’t believe the Bible is on his side,” he said—but expressed frustration with criticism of the president. “I think it’s disingenuous to just attack President Trump when he didn’t create the problem,” Franklin said. “He didn’t start the problem. But he’s willing to fix the problem permanently if Congress will just do their job.”
Other leaders feel that this issue has gotten disproportionate attention. “We’re mindful of the fact that children being separated from their parents can be harmful and traumatic, a reality that social science confirms,” said Jim Daly, the president of Focus on Family, in an emailed statement. “In fact, it would be great if the same degree of concern that has been expressed in recent days was applied to the crisis surrounding the family at-large,” including issues like divorce, abuse, and alcoholism.
Even James MacDonald, a Chicago-area mega-church pastor who has been one of the few leaders to step down from Trump’s evangelical advisory board, tweeted in exasperation in response to Hillary Clinton’s comments on the border separation.
For the most part, the groups and leaders who have spoken out most harshly on the border separations are those who have already established themselves as critics of the Trump administration’s policies. At the beginning of June, the Evangelical Immigration Table—a coalition of evangelical organizations that advocate for immigration reform “consistent with biblical values”—put out a statement condemning the family separations and this administration’s refugee policy. “The traumatic effects of this separation on these young children, which could be devastating and long-lasting, are of utmost concern,” the letter says.