U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Where do evangelicals stand on the Syrian refugee crisis?

…A look at the history of evangelical refugee resettlement might help

The following post is from Ulrike Elisabeth Stedtnitz, a PhD candidate at the University of Münster, Germany. She is working on a dissertation on evangelical activism for refugees and immigrants in the United States from the 1960s to the 2000s.

welcome a strangerA couple of days ago, Stephen Colbert chastened Republican presidential candidates for defending a closed-door policy for Syrian refugees (with the possible exception of Syrian Christians in the case of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.) But how do you tell apart Christian refugees, who could safely be assumed not to be terrorists, from their non-Christian compatriots? Colbert’s answer: “If you want to know if somebody is Christian, just ask them to complete this sentence: ‘Jesus said: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you …?’ And if they don’t say ‘welcomed me in,’ they are either a terrorist or they are running for president.”

So maybe Republican presidential candidates are trying to win political territory by capitalizing on presumed anti-Muslim sentiments among evangelical Christian voters. Assuming that is the case, how well do they know their voters? Wouldn’t Bible-believing, evangelical voters immediately know the answer to Colbert’s question? And wouldn’t that have a bearing on their assessment of the refugee situation? NPR’s Sarah McCammon asked a similar question this week. “For an emotional question like how to respond to the fear of terrorism, the answer from the Bible may depend on whom you ask,” she concluded. After the Paris attacks, evangelicals in the U.S. are “all over the place on this,” Trevin Wax from Religion News Service similarly reported. Many evangelical leaders, like Matthew Soerens from World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals’ arm for international development, have come out strongly against imposing restrictions on Syrian refugee admissions (in line with his position on a biblical case for comprehensive immigration reform). The National Association of Evangelicals has published a statement calling for the continued resettlement of refugees. While there are some dissenting voices, the majority of evangelical leaders insist that hospitality to refugees – Christian and other – is a moral duty for Christians.

Evangelical leaders have called on Christians to “welcome the stranger” since the early 1960s, when evangelical churches started getting involved in the resettlement of Cuban refugees through the U.S. government’s Cuban Refugee Center. In my research on refugee resettlement by evangelical Christian churches and organizations since the 1960s, there is not a single verse that I have seen quoted more widely than the one Colbert cited, Matthew 25:35 (closely followed by Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God”, NASB). This was not just applied to coreligionists: The same denominations and organizations that had resettled the Catholic Cubans in the 1960s (though these were not viewed as fellow Christians, either) continued to resettle refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, many of whom where Buddhists. Southern Baptist volunteers held Americanization and ESL classes at the refugee camps in Arkansas (Fort Chaffee), California (Camp Pendleton) and Florida (Eglin Air Force Base), where the refugees arrived. They built relationships with the refugees and guided them through the day-to-day activities in the camp. In fact, some of the volunteers were former missionaries to Vietnam, who – unable to continue their missionary work on site – discovered that their mission field had relocated with them. They were an important resource for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which gladly accepted their services as language and sometimes cultural interpreters.

Individual and congregational sponsorship of Southeast Asian refugees became a cornerstone of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ministry to refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The denomination contracted through the Protestant agency Church World Service, which was one of the private voluntary resettling agencies under contract with the State Department to resettle refugees (a practice continued until today). Southern Baptist congregations, Sunday school classes, Women’s Missionary Unions – basically any church group you can think of – acted as sponsors to Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees, welcoming them at the airport, finding and furnishing homes for them, organizing job opportunities, enrolling the adult refugees in ESL classes and the children in school, making medical appointments, and providing friendship and support (some even had regular visiting schedules). In 1980, the all-time high in terms of Southern Baptist Southeast Asian refugee resettlement, the Convention’s member churches resettled 4,079 refugees (1). I do not want to imply that this was a Convention-wide effort. In fact, by 1986, only 1% of all 36,000 Southern Baptist churches had participated in the program (2). But the Home Mission Board’s (HMB) valiant efforts to win congregational sponsors tell us something about the Convention’s history of arguing for hospitality toward refugees. In doing so, the HMB developed a firm biblical rationale for “welcoming the stranger,” producing bible studies on the subject, in which they listed numerous biblical passages concerning God’s love for the stranger and Old Testament laws to treat the sojourner with justice and compassion, such as the passage from Leviticus 19 quoted above. Not only did God tell his people to love the stranger and love the neighbor, but his own people – and in fact, a number of Old Testament patriarchs – shared a history of migration. A history that continues for Christians to this day, who, like Jesus, are “pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13) (3). And so Oscar Romo, director of the HMB’s Language Missions Division, exhorted Southern Baptists: “Scriptures often seem to praise or judge peoples by whether the stranger … is welcomed or rejected.”

Unlike the evangelical organizations involved in refugee resettlement today, like World Relief, Southern Baptists at the time infused their ministry with the desire to evangelize the newcomers. But this important goal of the ministry should not distract from the fact that Southern Baptists, the strongest evangelical body in the United States, have developed a consistent biblical rationale calling for Christian hospitality for refugees over the past 50+ years. (On a related note, and using the same rationale, some of its leaders like Richard Land have also been outspoken supporters of a comprehensive immigration reform through the Evangelical Immigration Table.

So while I haven’t seen any statistics on where the grassroots evangelical scene stands on the question of the admission of Syrian refugees, my hunch would be to go with Matthew Soerens from World Relief, who told NPR that “I also think it could be a poor political position. I think a lot of candidates very quickly took a position, and I think that they may not realize the voters that they could be alienating with that position.” At the very least they may not realize how much their statements are at odds not only with evangelical leaders today, but also with the long history of evangelical hospitality towards refugees in the United States.

(1) “Giving the Refugee His ‘Best Chance’,” Home Missions 51, No. 3 (May/June 1980), p. 68. Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, TN.

(2) Language Missions Division, “Sponsors of Liberty,” 1986, in Box 135, Folder 12, Inventory of the Christian Life Commission Resource Files, SBHLA.

(3) Oscar L. Romo, “Global Refugees. A Southern Baptist Perspective,” 1984, in Box 6, Folder 4, Home Mission Board Ethnic Ministries Collection, SBHLA.

* The links that appeared at the end of the original post are the same as the hyperlinks in the main text of the post.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ulrike, thank you so much for sharing your research here. I have been mulling over your post ever since it went up last week.

    It seems that a “test case” of sorts for your hunch about the political (in)advisability of arguing against the acceptance of refugees is happening right now in Texas, the red-state Buckle of the Bible Belt (and in many ways the epicenter of the SBC). The state of Texas is suing the federal government to block the resettlement of a Syrian refugee family.

    If there are adverse political consequences to taking such a position, due to the deeply-held religious beliefs of evangelical Christians whose faith calls for showing hospitality to the stranger, caring for the least of these, etc., I would think those consequences would be manifested here in Texas, where there are Southern Baptists and other evangelicals aplenty.

    Will the “values voters” of this state push back against this lawsuit undertaken in their name in numbers sufficient enough to prompt some sort of political course correction? I guess that depends on what values these voters consider to be most important, and what values they are willing to subordinate to other ideas to which they assign greater priority.

    Historians don’t make predictions, but I will follow your lead here and offer a hunch: among evangelical voters, including Southern Baptists with their long history of assistance to and advocacy for refugees, there will probably not be significant adverse political consequences for this attempt to bar the stranger from their midst.

  2. Hi L.D., thank you for your comment which I, in turn, have been mulling over this week-end. Yes, I do think this will be a good test case for my careful “hunch.” Your question brings up an important point in the discussion, which is the divergent positions between evangelical leaders and the grassroots, and the (limited) influence leaders have on the grassroots. I do not know whether evangelicals are going to follow their leaders’ lead and plead for more generous refugee admissions quotas in general, or the family’s resettlement in Texas specifically (though I haven’t seen any statements by evangelical leaders on that). Just like you, I doubt it. I think the problem may be the difference between theory and practice (or, in evangelical/biblical terms, between word and deed).

    Evangelical responses to the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), an evangelical group lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform, are a case in point. Political scientist Michelle Margolis has found that while the EIT’s campaign to change the hearts and minds of evangelicals on immigration reform across the country had an effect on evangelical attitudes on comprehensive immigration reform, in that they became more supportive of CIR as a result of the EIT’s advertising. This did not have an effect on their actions, though. Evangelicals were not more likely to even sign a petition for CIR – arguably the most convenient form of political action there is – or to consider it an important electoral issue.(http://www.michelemargolis.com/uploads/2/0/2/0/20207607/eit_november_2015.pdf) (It would be interesting to see if Ben Carson’s statement after the Paris attacks hurt his popularity with evangelicals.)

    So this is a caveat to keep in mind, and you were right to point it out. On the other hand, I do want to stand by my admittedly optimistic hunch that Republican presidential candidates might hurt their cause by using harsh rhetoric and defending radical positions on refugee admissions. The Southern Baptist Convention, like other evangelical denominations, has become much more ethnically diverse in part as a result of its involvement in refugee resettlement. These refugees, their children and children’s children sit in Southern Baptist pews (or chairs!) and worship alongside evangelicals across the country every week, along with many documented and undocumented immigrants who face similar rhetoric. I think – but this really is a hunch – that this has to make a difference in how individual evangelicals view the matter. Evangelicals are a slow crowd, but if they are convinced that it’s a biblical issue, that will make a huge difference. And that is exactly how evangelical leaders have been framing it. Time will tell…

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