White evangelical Christians have long been some of President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. But the president’s recent decision to effectively abandon Kurdish fighters, considered key allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, appears to have caused a fracturing in this powerful religious group.
The president’s decision to withdraw roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria has already contributed to chaos in the region, as hundreds of Islamic State families and supporters escaped a detention camp amid fighting between the Kurds and rapidly advancing Turkish-backed forces. Turkey’s offensive has displaced at least 130,000 people, the United Nations reported Sunday.
Trump imposed economic sanctions against Turkey on Monday as the situation deteriorated. Trump says his decision to pull the troops was fueled by his desire to fulfill a campaign promise to stop America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But the president’s actions have struck a nerve among his loyal evangelical fans. Some leaders have broken rank to warn that Turkey’s invasion threatens vulnerable communities of Christians and other religious minorities in the region. Experts say these leaders’ support for the Kurds has a lot to do with how this religious group views itself ― as a persecuted minority standing up for American values. Evangelical reactions to the crisis are also indicative of this group’s deep-seated fears about Muslims.
The fact that even leaders who are usually steadfast allies to the president are speaking out publicly now is an indication of how crucial the issue is for this group.
Franklin Graham, son of the famous late evangelist Billy Graham, encouraged his substantial Twitter following last week to “pray w/me” that Trump would reconsider the move, because “thousands of lives hang in the balance.” On Tuesday, Graham tried to soften his tone a bit, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network that he doesn’t want to “second-guess” Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
“The decision has been made and the President certainly had his reasons and I respect his decision,” Graham said. “Now we have to deal with the fallout.”
Graham’s humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse is responding to the crisis unfolding in northern Syria.
The televangelist Pat Robertson, CBN’s founder, went so far as to warn that Trump was “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven.” CBN has been covering the crisis extensively on its news website, including with commentary alleging that “Kurds are the evangelicals of the Muslim World.”
As criticism from evangelical leaders became more vocal, Trump attempted to defend his moves during a speech at the Values Voters Summit, a conservative Christian political conference, on Saturday. The president announced that he’s releasing $50 million in emergency assistance to Syrian human rights groups and other organizations protecting religious and ethnic minorities.
Trump also reiterated his reasoning for pulling U.S. troops out of Turkey’s path.
“I don’t think our soldiers should be there for the next 50 years guarding a border between Turkey and Syria when we can’t guard our own borders at home,” he said. “So let’s see what happens. And it’s a long ways away. We killed ISIS. We defeated — we did our job. We have to go home. We did our job.”
It’s unclear whether Trump’s words and actions will smooth over conservative evangelical leaders’ concerns. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who spoke to the Christian Post at the Values Voter Summit on Saturday, said that while most conservative evangelical voters aren’t bothered by the impeachment proceedings against Trump, they are “more concerned about what’s unfolding right now in Syria.”
“I think that’s the first time they’ve actually seen any space between them and this president,” said Perkins, who in 2018 told Politico that evangelicals were willing to give Trump a “mulligan” over his questionable personal behavior.
There are several possible reasons why it is this issue ― compared to Trump’s history of infidelity, lies and racist rhetoric ― that has disgruntled these leaders enough that they are compelled to speak out.
Evangelicals see the Middle East as a unique mission field because it has a low and declining population of Christians. And as the birthplace of Christianity, they believe it will continue to play a special role in God’s plan for the world, according to Daniel K. Williams, a historian at the University of West Georgia who has studied the Christian right.
The group’s sympathy for the Kurds in particular can be traced to its concerns about religious persecution, both in America and around the world. Many conservative white evangelicals see themselves as a beleaguered minority in imminent danger of persecution in the United States, Williams said. In fact, studies suggest that white evangelicals believe they face more discrimination in the U.S. than Muslims do.
As a result, white evangelicals see themselves as spiritual brothers and sisters of persecuted Christians around the world. It’s not uncommon for members of this religious group to regularly hear Sunday morning church prayers for persecuted Christians around the world, Williams said.
White evangelicals’ sense of kinship with persecuted people of faith around the world is heightened when the religious group in question is facing persecution from Muslims. In a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 75% of white evangelicals said they were “very concerned” about extremism in the name of Islam around the world these days ― significantly more than any other religious group surveyed.
Even though most Kurds are Muslims, the ethnic group includes a subset of Christians and other religious groups. Today, conservative and politically engaged evangelicals remember the critical role America’s Kurdish allies have played in the region since 2003, including helping in the fight against the Islamic State, according to Daniel Hummel, a historian of U.S. religion and diplomacy at a Christian study center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Insofar as many evangelicals see the major confrontation of this age as American power vs. Islamic radicalism, the Kurds are a small but valiant ally,” Hummel said.
In addition, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is in some ways an uneasy fit with how evangelicals have historically approached foreign policy. White evangelicals were strong supporters of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They view the War on Terror in the same way as they viewed the Cold War, Williams said, as a “righteous struggle against an anti-Christian force.”
“President Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds and pull back from military efforts in Syria is an affront to their sense of duty to Christian allies in the Middle East and their commitment to the fight against ‘radical Islamic terror,’” Williams said.
Evangelical radio host Erick Erickson suggested Sunday that Trump’s decision to pull troops from northern Syria would have an impact on the GOP during the 2020 election season.
But Hummel doesn’t think the issue is enough of a factor for evangelicals in the pews to swing their vote.
“I think Trump would need to show a pattern of disregarding foreign policy issues of concern to evangelicals for serious erosion to occur,” he said. “This is one data point, but it is after a slew of Trump decisions that evangelicals supported.”
Williams pointed out that Graham, who very rarely speaks up against the president’s policies, voiced concerns in 2018 about the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated migrant children from their parents at the border. But this and other instances of evangelical leaders criticizing Trump didn’t significantly erode white evangelicals’ support for the president, he said.
He believes white evangelicals’ support for Trump would drop if they see Republican leaders they respect breaking with the president and if they are assured that impeachment won’t damage the conservative Christian cause.
″To the extent that Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria contributes to the loss of Republican congressional support for the president and the loss of evangelical leaders’ support for the administration as well, it may make it easier for white evangelical voters to change their views of the president and to be open to the possibility of impeachment. We’re not quite there yet,” he said. ”A solid majority of white evangelical voters are still in Trump’s camp, and so far, I haven’t seen evidence to indicate that this single decision on Trump’s part will be enough to change this.”
“But it certainly doesn’t help Trump, and as far as white evangelical voters are concerned, it seems to have been an unnecessary affront to a group that he cannot afford to lose,” he added.
This article has been updated with additional comments from Franklin Graham.