Trump re­marks em­broil evan­gel­i­cal di­vide

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By Rachel Zoll

NEW YORK — Don­ald Trump’s vul­gar re­marks about why the U.S. should ad­mit im­mi­grants from Haiti and Africa have spot­lighted the bit­ter di­vide among Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cals about his pres­i­dency.

While some of his evan­gel­i­cal back­ers ex­pressed sup­port for his lead­er­ship, other con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians are call­ing the pres­i­dent racist and that church lead­ers had a moral im­per­a­tive to con­demn him.

“Your pro-life ar­gu­ment rings hol­low if you don’t have an is­sue with this xeno­pho­bic big­otry,” tweeted pas­tor Earon James of Rel­e­vant Life Church in Pace, Fla.

Trump won 80 per­cent of the white evan­gel­i­cal vote in the 2016 elec­tion. But re­cent polls show some weak­en­ing in that sup­port, with 61 per­cent ap­prov­ing of his job per­for­mance, com­pared with 78 per­cent last Fe­bru­ary, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

Still, con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians re­main as po­lar­ized as ever over his lead­er­ship.

Many evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers who de­fended him in the past would not com­ment on Trump’s re­marks to a group of sen­a­tors. A few of­fered some crit­i­cism. Pas­tor Ron­nie Floyd, a former pres­i­dent of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion, said it was “not good” to de­value any per­son.

John­nie Moore, a pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tive and a leader among Trump’s evan­gel­i­cal ad­vis­ers, said the re­ports of what Trump said were “ab­so­lutely sus­pect and politi­cized.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who at­tended the Oval Of­fice meet­ing Thurs­day, and peo­ple briefed on the con­ver­sa­tion said Trump did make the com­ments as re­ported: He ques­tioned why the U.S. would ac­cept more im­mi­grants from Haiti and “shit­hole coun­tries” in Africa as he re­jected a bi­par­ti­san im­mi­gra­tion deal.

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., who Durbin said ob­jected to Trump’s re­marks at that time, did not dis­pute Durbin’s de­scrip­tion.

Pas­tor Mark Burns from South Carolina re­mained skep­ti­cal, but said if the re­marks were true, Trump was only re­act­ing to poor con­di­tions in Haiti and Africa that were the fault of “lazy gov­ern­ments” there.

The Rev. Robert Jef­fress, pas­tor of First Bap­tist Dal­las and a fre­quent guest at the White House, said that apart from the pres­i­dent’s choice of words, “Trump is right on tar­get in his pol­icy,” putting the needs of the U.S. above those of other coun­tries.

Yet anger spread among other con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians.

They posted fam­ily pho­tos on so­cial me­dia and proudly noted im­mi­grant rel­a­tives. Bishop Tal­bert Swan of the Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, the coun­try’s largest black Pen­te­costal de­nom­i­na­tion, tweeted a photo of one of his grand­chil­dren born to what Swan said was his “ed­u­cated, hard-work­ing” HaitianAmer­i­can daugh­ter-in-law.

Swan, based in Spring­field, Mass., called Trump’s com­ments “vile, foul-mouthed, racist,” and posted the hash­tag #Im­peachTrump.

A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of African im­mi­grants are Chris­tians who joined U.S. evan­gel­i­cal con­gre­ga­tions, and many have be­come ad­vo­cates for more gen­er­ous im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies and crit­ics of Trump’s views.

Thabiti Anyab­wile, pas­tor of Ana­cos­tia River Church, a South­ern Bap­tist con­gre­ga­tion in Wash­ing­ton, said his church in­cludes Chris­tians from Rwanda, Nige­ria, Guyana and Zim­babwe.

“This is my im­mi­grant fam­ily, my true broth­ers and sis­ters in Christ Je­sus,” he wrote on the site of The Gospel Coali­tion, an evan­gel­i­cal group. “As a shep­herd, I can­not abide the com­ments our pres­i­dent makes re­gard­ing im­mi­grant peo­ples and their coun­tries of ori­gin. I can­not leave them alone to hear racist barbs, evil speech, in­cen­di­ary com­ment, and blas­phe­mous slan­der against the im­age and like­ness of God in which they are made.”

Amer­i­can con­nec­tions with Chris­tians over­seas also have grown in re­cent years through mis­sion projects of­ten in Haiti and Africa.

The Rev. Tish Har­ri­son War­ren, an author and Angli­can priest who serves at the Church of the As­cen­sion in Pitts­burgh, wor­ried about the fall­out for the fel­low­ship of evan­gel­i­cals out­side and in­side the U.S.

Her de­nom­i­na­tion, the Angli­can Church in North Amer­ica, was formed un­der the lead­er­ship of African Angli­can bish­ops to serve con­ser­va­tive Epis­co­palians and oth­ers. Her lo­cal church in­cludes parish­ioners from Uganda, Iran, Turkey, China and other coun­tries.

“It hurts evan­ge­lism,” War­ren said of the pres­i­dent’s com­ments.

As­so­ci­ated Press file

The Rev. Robert Jef­fress, pas­tor of First Bap­tist Church in Dal­las, said that apart from his choice of words, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was “right on tar­get in his pol­icy.” Other evan­gel­i­cals dis­agree.

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