Refugees and the Elite/laity Divide in Evangelicalism

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In recent days we’ve seen a good example of the divide between evangelical elites and ordinary white evangelicals. Last week, a large group of evangelical leaders took out a full page ad in the Washington Post to express support for refugees and concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order. The signers are not minor figures or political activists. They are some of the most popular and influential figures in evangelicalism. White evangelicals read their books, donate to their charities, and listen to their sermons. And yet…

The first poll of white evangelical opinion since Trump’s inauguration reveals that 76% approve of President Trump’s job performance and 76% approve of the executive order on immigration and refugees.

This is not surprising, but it is still somewhat mysterious to me. Do white evangelicals just ignore the opinions of their best pastors and theologians and parachurch leaders? Or is the theology white evangelicals receive on Sunday mornings flawed at its core? One ad in the Washington Post is not likely to overcome the more routine messages of therapeutic, self-focused religion. White evangelical leaders (not the political hacks) have been sounding reasonable for decades. Yet in many ways, they appear powerless to shape the views of ordinary white evangelicals. What is creating this elite/layperson divide and what sustains it? How do education and race and class figure into it? I’m still not sure we have an adequate understanding of how the politics of the white evangelical mainstream is constituted. In any case, while white evangelicals cheer Trump on, evangelicals who actually help refugees have to close down services.

The real scandal here is not that most white evangelicals voted for Trump. We can concede the point and agree to disagree about that political calculation. The scandal is that most white evangelicals view Trump and his whole suite of policies favorably. They like Trump. Whatever else that tell us, it reveals that evangelical leaders have failed dramatically in getting their flocks to apply Christian thinking to public life.

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