Over the past three weeks, conservative religious leaders have been steadily intensifying their condemnation of President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy on the U.S.-Mexico border, including the forced separation of children and parents who illegally migrated to the United States. Groups including the Southern Baptist Convention and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released anxious statements about immigration last week. Typically outspoken Trump supporters like Franklin Graham, the son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham and head of the charity Samaritan’s Purse, condemned the separations: During an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Graham said it is “disgraceful—it is terrible to see families ripped apart. And I don’t support that one bit.”
This is an unusual level of public pushback from conservative religious groups and leaders, many of whom have been extremely friendly to the Trump administration: Just as the Southern Baptist Convention passed its call for “immigration reform … maintaining a priority of family unity,” it also welcomed Vice President Mike Pence as a keynote speaker at its annual meeting.
But the volume of the criticism can also be deceiving. Many of the groups that have been most vocal against the border policy are already outspoken Trump skeptics. Among the ranks of Trump’s closest allies—including those who advise him on conservative religious voters—the condemnation has been more tempered. Some even see hypocrisy in this latest round of media attention to the border, pointing to Obama-era policies, which also jeopardized the welfare of children.
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.
Signatories include Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention who has long been an outspoken Trump critic; Scott Arbeiter, the president of World Relief who has condemned Trump’s immigration and refugees policy; and Leith Anderson, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who advocated unsuccessfully for relief for DACA recipients who were brought to the United States as children. One signatory, Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, is on Trump’s evangelical advisory council, and he spoke at Trump’s inauguration. But he has also consistently pushed for immigration reform in the past.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also released a strong condemnation of the “zero-tolerance policy.” “Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together,” wrote Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the conference, which represents Catholic clergy in the United States. “While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government.” The bishops have consistently spoken up about the president’s immigration and refugee policies, including his controversial executive order released in January 2017.
None of this is to say that Trump’s policy, and the wave of backlash that has followed it, is not significant. Dozens of religious groups have chosen to speak out on this issue; Jack Jenkins at Religion News Service compiled a full list of statements that have been released, stretching into the dozens. For some groups, the choice to speak out is a major shift: The Orthodox Union, which represents many Modern Orthodox Jewish congregations in the U.S., honored Sessions as the keynote speaker at its annual conference last week. Shortly after, the president of the group, Moishe Bane, released a statement opposing the “zero-tolerance policy,” “based upon the Torah’s values.”
On the whole, though, the news of migrant children being forcibly taken from their parents at the border has only served to underscore the existing postures of conservative religious groups. Those who tend to prefer condemning Trump publicly have done so. Those who prefer working directly with the administration have either kept their silence or spoken with caution. In fact, some of Trump’s closest advisers deal directly with the effects of immigration every day: “We pastor these people. They’re in our churches,” Franklin said. “They’ve grown up in my community. They’ve gone to school with my kids. I know these people. They’re good, good people. And this exactly what I said to the president when I had the opportunity … on several occasions.”
In the long run, the controversy over border separations may not represent a new fracture in Trump’s coalition. It may be yet another sign of how divided religious conservatives have become.