The headlines told the story. Following the inauguration of former president Donald Trump, articles with titles such as “White Evangelicals Have Turned on Refugees” and “The Group Least Likely to Think the U.S. Has a Responsibility to Accept Refugees? Evangelicals” appeared across news outlets, as multiple journalists and scholars attempted to explain “Why White Evangelicals Are So Hostile to Immigration.” Broad electoral support among white evangelicals for Trump’s 2016 platform sparked renewed public interest in the political allegiances of this demographic. Scholars, journalists, and pundits alike queried how a group that ostensibly derives its guiding values from the Bible could evince political positions so opposed to biblical directives to “welcome the stranger.” Stories with headlines such as “The Bible Says to Welcome Immigrants. So Why Don’t White Evangelicals?” suggested that white evangelical Christians, by supporting restrictive immigration policies and cuts to refugee resettlement, were acting against their own theological convictions.
Immigration issues have become increasingly polarized in the United States over the past decade, driven by increasing global migration and xenophobic rhetoric. Amid the turmoil of the 2016 US election season, refugee resettlement became a byword, encapsulating politicization about religious and cultural identity, and the security and safety of the nation. Despite evangelical leaders’ public opposition to Trump-era policies, polling data consistently indicates that white American evangelicals are more opposed to refugee resettlement, more hostile to immigration, and less likely to believe the United States has a responsibility to welcome refugees than any other demographic.
As other scholars have noted, the key to understanding this apparent incongruity lies not in literal interpretations of biblical imperatives but rather in an analysis of the historical and cultural aspects of the American evangelical movement. Multiple explanations have been offered to make sense of the rise of public anti-immigrant sentiment among white American evangelicals, emphasizing factors such as white nationalism, militant patriarchy, perceived threats of terrorism, and concerns about law and order.
Yet despite the salience of these explanatory frameworks, xenophobic nationalism is not the only possible manifestation of white evangelical theology, culture, and practice. Likewise, progressive theologies and political practice are not the only reasons that American Christians welcome immigrants and refugees. American evangelical culture and theology is not monolithic. Instead, evangelicals maintain competing theological alliances, political influences, and cultural values that can shape divergent political behaviors and views on immigrants and refugees.
I have researched refugee resettlement initiatives in multiple study sites across the US Southeast and Midwest over the past six years. In the wake of widespread evangelical support for Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and other punitive policies, I expected to find that most “welcomers” in resettlement sites would come primarily from secular groups, long-standing mainline relief efforts, or diverse religious backgrounds. While many resettlement volunteers I encountered fit those descriptors, I also found evidence that white evangelical Christians were joining resettlement efforts. Following the 2017 “Muslim Ban,” a resettlement organization reported that fifty-five evangelical churches and more than 750 new volunteers had signed up with the organization in the preceding year alone, as concern for the plight of refugees and disagreement with the administration’s actions catalyzed a new wave of evangelical volunteerism.
To understand this commitment, I interviewed and shadowed evangelicals working in refugee resettlement to understand their motivations, beliefs, and experiences. Participants either volunteered extensively with faith-based refugee resettlement organizations or were employed by them, and these resettlement activities were available to refugees of any nationality. In a city with a 67 percent white-majority population, most study participants were also white, and ranged in life stage from students to retirees. Most were middle class and all identified as evangelical, born-again Christians—an identity they argued was central to their resettlement work. Although motivated in part by a desire to do good works, “love one’s neighbor,” and “welcome the stranger,” evangelical participants articulated an animating framework distinct from other Christian traditions, which drove their engagement in resettlement work.
True to their nominal descriptor, “evangelical” Christians emphasize sharing the “good news” of the Christian gospel with “the lost,” or those who have not heard it. This imperative to share the gospel is unbounded by space or national borders. Taking inspiration from the final admonitions of Jesus Christ in the Great Commission, many evangelicals believe in the importance of sharing the gospel with “all nations.” Historically, this directive has motivated centuries of Christian mission to nations around the world, often accompanied by displays of colonial power and “civilizing” impulses. While evangelical denominations still engage in a wide variety of “overseas missions,” the geographic imaginary behind this missional impulse has shifted in recent decades.
Based on past research and ongoing projects, I contend that the presence of refugees on US soil connects with this particular way that evangelicals imagine the world—now, “the lost” are not in far-off countries overseas, but have been resettled in local neighborhoods. Suddenly, American evangelicals can “welcome the stranger” and participate in the global expansion of “God’s kingdom” without ever leaving home. Refugee resettlement ruptures the traditional evangelical geographic imaginary that locates “the unreached” outside of the West; by bringing “the nations” into American cities and neighborhoods, refugee resettlement provides an opportunity for evangelicals to join in the mission of global evangelization right in their hometowns. Refugee resettlement work becomes central to American evangelicals’ thinking about their relationship to “the world,” “the nations,” and their own nation, as well as a potential site of encounter and “enchantment with this ‘other’ alterity.” It is this way of seeing the world that primarily differentiates the resettlement work of evangelicals from that of other Christian traditions. By bringing the subjects of evangelistic fervor onto American soil, refugee resettlement ruptures the established evangelical geographic imaginary.
Research participants reflected on this orientation that motivates their work. One participant, a white male pastor in his mid-thirties, stated:
Most people think that the nations are out there, outside of the U.S., but like, they’re literally coming in every week, you know […] [Our town] was supposed to get, I think 5,000 refugees this year […] Even if you go visit somewhere overseas, you’re not going to meet five thousand – and now they are coming to your own city. So let’s like work with what’s being sent here, instead of paying thousands of dollars to go overseas for two weeks, you can build a relationship with someone here that’s going to last much longer than two weeks. (Interview, 2017, Kentucky, emphasis added)
Reflecting on the ubiquitous tradition of short-term, overseas “mission trips,” this evangelical resettlement volunteer situated his participation in welcoming refugees as obedience to Jesus’s commands in the biblical Great Commission. Not only is refugee resettlement volunteerism a cheaper option than traveling to a foreign country, but participants also valued the continued proximity to resettled refugees, which allowed them to “build a relationship” and continue engagement over time. Another participant, a mid-thirties white male volunteer, explained:
People think, “For me to actually engage with the nations I’ve got to go to all these places, on these short-term mission trips to Africa,” […] but I still think a lot of that can happen here in our city, you know. There’s parts of the city where you can go and you can really think you’re in another country, because people are speaking a different language, there’s like food that’s being served that you don’t normally see. (Interview, 2018, Kentucky, emphasis added)
For many evangelical resettlement workers, the geographic proximity of resettled refugees “in our city” expands the possibilities of fulfilling evangelistic missional fervor, traditionally directed at foreign “nations” as the location of “the lost.” The US refugee resettlement program has now relocated these same “lost” to neighborhoods across US cities. Most new immigrant settlement follows an established model of concentration as refugee newcomers are placed in areas with the lowest rent and lowest property values, which are generally far from the middle-class suburban neighborhoods where many of my white American evangelical volunteer research participants lived. In this way, resettling refugees in American cities not only ruptures the geographic imaginaries of evangelical international mission, but also temporarily brings resettlement workers and volunteers into communities and neighborhoods that are likely far from their social and class background, neighborhood of residence, or typical experience.
The importance of fulfilling this mission to “the nations” cannot be overstated in evangelical Christian theology. Beyond obeying the Great Commission of Christ, many evangelicals take the words of Matthew 24:14 literally: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (emphasis added). Thus, the fulfillment of the mission to share the Christian message with all nations has eschatological importance, bringing about the swift return of Christ and ushering in what many believe to be a millennial kingdom in which Christ would rule the earth. To the uninitiated, this may seem like a leap. However, many participants I interviewed longed and prayed specifically for this outcome.
Whether as paid employees or as volunteers, these evangelicals obeyed commands of scripture not only to love, care, and share the gospel, but also to hasten the coming of Jesus Christ, an outcome viewed as the ultimate solution to earthly sin, injustice, and problems faced by refugees and all people. Through participation in resettlement work, evangelicals construct and enact responses to immigration that resist homogenous characterization of seemingly hegemonic evangelical support for anti-immigrant policies. Although tied to problematic colonial legacies of overseas mission and tendencies toward white saviorism, evangelical resettlement efforts nevertheless break from overwhelmingly negative representations of white evangelicals as antagonistic toward refugees and immigrants.