There's no doubt about it. The election of Donald Trump as America's president-elect has unleashed a new spate of xenophobia. At the university campus where I study, a small group of white men recently attacked and spat upon a male student of Asian descent, presumably because of his ethnicity. A couple of days later, white men shoved to the ground a female student wearing a scarf similar to a hijab covering her face, insisting that she remove it. These incidents mirror what is happening across the country; one website post documented numerous attacks on minorities the day after the election, with the leading photograph displaying graffiti on a wall next to a sports field declaring "Make America White Again." A swastika was emblazoned between the words.
Juxtapose such incidents with the election exit polls that show 81 percent of American evangelical Christians voted for Trump, and one immediately sees the problem for evangelicalism. Now, that statistic has been challenged, with some good reason. According to Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, the term "evangelical" has been watered down by pollsters, making it a less meaningful designation, something more akin, perhaps, to "culturally Christian" voters. Moreover, Joe Carter, an editor for the Gospel Coalition, pointed out that the statistic captures just "white evangelical" votes, and he argued that the actual number of evangelicals who voted for Trump is much lower, perhaps even under 50 percent of the group.
Yet while some are trying to clear the name of American evangelicals, others are clearly disillusioned with evangelical Christianity, or at least the conservative version of it. Katelyn Beaty, a former editor of the centrist evangelical magazine Christianity Today has declared that in the wake of this election, she cannot "defend" her community. Beaty's sentiment is echoed by many; Christianity Today itself reported on evangelicals from other countries (including Malaysia, Croatia, and elsewhere) voicing deep concerns over American evangelical support of Trump and the damage this is doing to the moral standing of the movement worldwide.
Yet does this association of American evangelicals with xenophobia ring true? Earlier this fall, the New York Times reported on the efforts of evangelicals to welcome and orient refugees from Syria and other countries, offering them practical as well as emotional support. Indeed, the evangelical Christian organization World Relief for over 70 years has been in the business of helping refugees find housing and jobs and, in general, acclimate to the U.S. Moreover, one could look beyond such efforts to a whole legacy of evangelical social activism on behalf of those who are in greatest need, from abolitionism in the years prior to the Civil War to contemporary evangelical efforts to combat the international sex-slavery trade.
So what is going on here? An article by Christianity Today analyzing 13 different surveys of evangelicals suggested that the issue that mattered most to them this election cycle was "improving the economy" (at 26 percent), followed by "national security" (at 22 percent). As an issue, immigration ranked quite low for evangelicals (at only 5 percent). Depending on how one reads that data (what exactly does a concern for "national security" entail?), this finding offers some hope that evangelicals who voted for Trump do not support the xenophobia on display right now but are in fact focused on other issues.
Yet if evangelicals who voted for Trump truly want to demonstrate their support of the immigrant, and more generally, people of color, they need now to go the extra mile and declare that publicly. Evangelical leaders need to tell Donald Trump in no uncertain terms that evangelicals elected him for reasons other than those trumpeted by white supremacists now attacking people in the streets. That could mean threatening to withdraw their support in future elections if Trump embarks on a policy of mass deportation of immigrants, for example. More positively, it could entail calling on Republican congressmen to draft legislation that strengthens the rights of ethnic and religious minorities (especially Muslims) and to pressure Trump to sign the legislation into law.
In any case, what American evangelicals cannot afford to do now is nothing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian who resisted Adolf Hitler during the Nazi regime (and who is often quoted by American evangelicals) wrote in a sermon of his on the biblical book of 2 Corinthians that "Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much." As we think about the Trump years ahead, Bonhoeffer's words now have a prophetic dimension. Unless American evangelicals (and Americans as a whole) act now to combat this rise of xenophobia, there will be dreadful consequences, both for immigrants and for evangelicals themselves.