American evangelicals love to love — at times, quite widely.
They give generously to “foreign missions,” with hope some unknown, lost souls in faraway lands will be rescued from eternal damnation.
Many will take a trip — and pay their own expenses — to help dig a well or build a church facility in Africa, or to love on some orphans in Central America.
When one’s own neighborhood starts changing, however, and political power shifts threaten white cultural control at home, there is a different response. Then, many of these professed lovers of God and humanity prefer to love from a perceived safe distance.
“I’ll love them over there,” one person told me of his opposition to desperate refugees coming to the “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.”
Global migration and growing pluralism have revealed the degree to which many American Christians are willing to embrace the image of God in those whose image is unlike their own.
There is a long history, however, of white American Christians drawing the line of love and acceptance at close proximity. “Not in my neighborhood” is a well-worn refrain.
Writing in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin in 2018, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of the now highly popular book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith And Fractured A Nation, noted an unresolved conflict for such people of faith.
Evangelicals claim a high allegiance to the Bible — that speaks directly to “loving the stranger and caring for the foreigner.” Yet, white American evangelicals, she added, oppose immigration reform more than any other religious demographic according to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study.
As Kobes Du Mez pointed out, a LifeWay Research poll from that time found that 90% of evangelicals say the Bible “has no impact on their views toward immigration reform.”
Such reform, of course, would involve rectifying the confusing, complicated and inconsistent immigration policies and practices faced today.
Such attitudes have not improved in more recent years — due largely to evangelicals’ alignment with anti-immigration politicians.
A common defense has been to offer qualified support for immigrants who enter “the right way.”
That defense, however, doesn’t acknowledge the intentional roadblocks erected to prevent refugees and immigrants from entering the U.S. “correctly,” including deep reductions in the overall refugee acceptance, selective bans based on religion and ethnicity, and the by-design slower processing of visa applications.
Then there are the hundreds of thousands who came to the U.S. as children — knowing only this nation as their home — who get turned into political footballs. The trauma caused by their uncertain status seems less of a concern to many Christians than their effectiveness as political pawns.
And, of course, keeping people of color from being eligible to vote is a high political priority for many white evangelicals. Just check the race and religious affiliation of the state legislators driving voter suppression now.
While some obstacles to immigration and refugee settlement are being removed nationally, white evangelical support has enabled their construction and now inhibits efforts to dismantle them.
Last fall, PRRI revealed a study from 2019 showing no strong patterns among Christian groups that see immigration as a “critical issue.” However, white evangelical Protestants (at 67%) stood out as viewing newcomers as “threats” to American traditions.
Two-thirds (66%) of white evangelical Protestants said that immigrants are “invading” the U.S. and replacing its cultural and ethnic background — which was much higher than the one-third (36%) of Americans at large who affirmed that conclusion.
Seeking to align one’s professed faith with a “not in my neighborhood” attitude is quite the challenge, however, considering that Jesus said his followers are to love their neighbors as they love themselves. Then, Jesus famously told a story to show clearly that his followers don’t get to choose the designation of neighbor to match their own likeness.
Fear leads to some ugly expressions and outcomes — especially fear of change that has the potential for reducing one’s social power and sense of importance.
Such fear — and its resulting vulnerability and even outrage — gets expressed through demeaning and destructive stereotypes of often-marginalized and suffering people based on race, national origin or other identifiers of separation.
At the least, such fear leads to the enabling of politicians, preachers and others who advance baseless bigotry and undeserved condemnation of those who threaten white dominance.
The good news is that most Americans (largely descendants from immigrants) view the more recent immigrants among us in a positive light, according to PRRI. However, 71% of white evangelical Protestants consider immigrants a burden on — rather than a contribution to — their communities as opposed to 49% of Americans overall.
Mounting evidence shows that many professing Christians put limits on their love when it comes to protecting one’s privileged status and their comfort with the status quo.
For them, it just feels better and safer to “love them over there” where the only costs are an annual vacation and an occasional missions offering.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.