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Why evangelicals still line up behind Trump after child separations

ATLANTA -- Pastor Jack Lee was troubled when he heard about immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border.

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Shelia M. Poole
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- Pastor Jack Lee was troubled when he heard about immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border.

That changed to relief on Wednesday when President Donald Trump signed an executive order that reversed the controversial policy that forced children from their mothers and fathers as part of the administration's "zero tolerance" policy for people who enter the country illegally.

Like some other evangelical faith leaders, the pastor of the 750-member Altamaha Baptist Church in Jesup, Georgia, still supports the man he voted for in 2016 because of his views on religious freedom, illegal immigration and building a wall along the border with Mexico.

Trump's executive order was "an adjustment. Sometimes to solve one problem, we create another," Lee said. "There's not been a president yet who has not had issues or stresses over policy that had to be overcome during the first four years."

The Rev. Tom Hagood, who pastors a mainline Protestant church nearly four hours away in Decatur, near Atlanta, views the matter differently.

The order reverses the policy that separates families. It doesn't specify how the 2,300 children who have already been taken away will be reunited with their parents. The administration will still detain families together as part of its "zero tolerance" policy.

"It's wonderful that all of a sudden that we got this outpouring of folks saying enough is enough," said Hagood, pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church, which has offered sanctuary to immigrants who need a place to stay while their cases make their way through the courts or who need a safe place on their way to visit relatives in detention centers in Georgia.

"This got people excited because it was such an abhorrent thing that was being done," Hagood added. "Trump has only undone what he should never have done in the first place. However, the hard fact is that he's still going to continue to detain families and that is wrong. ... As a faith leader, this is not how we are commanded to treat the immigrants in our land."

Could the two men of God find common ground? Hagood hopes so, but experts say that is just wishful thinking.

Although several prominent conservative and evangelical leaders criticized the policy that broke apart families, they are sticking with their man. Surveys showed white evangelicals, in particular, voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

At its annual meeting in Dallas last week, the historically conservative Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution that, while calling for immigration reform, also pushed for "maintaining the priority of family unity."

And in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, evangelist Franklin Graham, who leads an international relief nonprofit, Samaritan's Purse, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, called the policy "disgraceful."

Franklin quickly praised Trump for "stepping up to do the right thing for these children" after Trump signed an executive order ending the policy that separated children from their mothers and fathers. "My prayer is that Congress will now step up and do the right thing -- Republicans and Democrats working together to come up with a bipartisan solution to the problems we face at our nation's borders."

David P. Gushee, an author and distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, said Trump bowed "to overwhelming public pressure. It was a stirring victory for American democracy. Evangelicals played no especially great role, but some stood up for what was right and decent."

Before the order, there were signs of "strain" within Trump's base.

"I hope evangelicals will step up to the plate and work with us," said Hagood, the Presbyterian pastor in Decatur. "We're doing work around the same faith issues they believe in. Families are extremely important in our faith, and anything that separates the family is not right."

Evangelicals have embraced Trump because they saw in him a candidate that could place another conservative justice on the Supreme Court, which he did with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, his support of religious freedom issues, his stances on Planned Parenthood funding and abortion and his promise to build a wall.

Take conservative businessman Bob Best, who called the policy and subsequent reversal "a mess that has been brewing for a long time."

"We've got an immigration system where we've ignored the rule of law," he said. "I'm a rule-of-law person. If you don't like the law, change the law."

He's still a Trump man. "I'm absolutely 100 percent behind him," said Best, who lives in Powder Springs, Georgia. "He's going to do great things for this country, and you can't let what happened to the little kids distract from the big game, which is trying to control the border and trying to keep cheap, unskilled labor out of our country."

Pastor James Merritt of Cross Pointe Church, which has campuses in Duluth and Braselton, Georgia, didn't vote for Trump, although he supports some of his moves such as the appointment of Gorsuch and tax cuts.

"I wouldn't say there's a crack" in the wall around evangelical support of Trump, "particularly in light of the actions he's taken," said Merritt. "If this (child separations) had gone on, there may have been some cracks in support because it was such an egregious policy as an injustice to followers of Christ. It was just a very wrong-headed policy. My prayer would be that the Republicans and Democrats put their partisan differences aside and try to get his issue resolved and stop punting the ball down the field."

Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of a book on immigration and evangelicals, also doesn't see a split between evangelicals and Trump, particularly among the people who "sit in the pews."

"I don't see a breaking point between evangelicals and Trump," she said. "Evangelical leaders have had criticisms of Trump policy, but the rank and file never went along with them."

The leadership may have come close to "boxing themselves into a moral corner," but "white evangelicals are not going to protest in great numbers. They didn't do it around DACA. Leadership can sometimes move surprisingly left of the rank and file, and that's especially true of immigration."

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