OKLAHOMA CITY — Media coverage of President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily barring refugees from seven countries has displeased Bill Hulse, a Southern Baptist pastor in one of the reddest of the red states.
"I don’t think it was an attack on religion," said Hulse, senior pastor for the Putnam City Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. "I think he was pretty clear that this would be until we could vet who was coming in, that radical Muslim terrorists are our enemy right now."
The phrase "Muslim-majority countries" — describing Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen — has appeared in many, if not most, news reports on Trump's action.
However, some — including the editor of the Wall Street Journal — see that terminology as "very loaded." It wrongly focuses, critics maintain, on religion instead of the potential terrorism threat posed by certain countries. Others dispute the notion that this is anything but a "Muslim ban."
Hulse serves a conservative congregation — theologically and politically — that averages Sunday attendance of about 700. The 53-year-old pastor expresses a desire to show Christian love and compassion to immigrants and refugees. But he's concerned, too, for the nation’s security.
Despite worries about Trump’s character, many members of Hulse’s church supported the brash billionaire’s winning presidential campaign. Trump’s opposition to abortion — including promising to appoint pro-life U.S. Supreme Court justices — and support for heightened border security were among the reasons why, the pastor said.
Overall, 65.3 percent of voters in the Bible Belt state of 3.9 million cast ballots for Trump. Only Wyoming (68.2 percent) and West Virginia (67.9 percent) gave a higher proportion of votes to the Republican.
As religious leaders across the nation debate the president’s refugee order as well as his push to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Hulse offered insight into how he and his congregation approach the controversial issues. And he shared his concerns about media coverage. By the way, in case you missed it, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly's post on whether the press ignored key contents of Trump's order is essential reading.
I talked to Hulse as part of a national roundup for the Washington Post. I thought I'd share a larger portion of our conversation here. I've edited the interview for length and clarity.
Q: Where would your church come down on the border and refugee questions?
A: We are a multigenerational church, which is becoming harder and harder to find. With multigenerational churches, there also are multi-responses, if I can make up a word. So I think you have a spectrum, all over the place.
I also think we have an ignorance, and let me define that word, because I get in trouble with words sometimes. We have an uninformed population. I think they get sound bites off of news, and that’s all they really do. And I don’t think we study this. I know I need to be even more studied on it. So I think you would get an uninformed response from a lot of people. Knee-jerk.
Q: What concerns do you hear members express?
A: There’s a concern for safety, obviously. It’s heightened and has made it a much more emotional response. For example, in the 1970s, Oklahoma City had a big influx of Vietnamese, Korean and, I think, Laotian refugees. Our church, we went and adopted many refugees. Still today, we have an international ministry. And I think that was a very safe thing, and a very Christian response, and that’s how we should respond. But that was a different time, and those factors that are in the refugee argument today are different than then. Certainly, we as a church are very refugee-oriented, but I do think there are different key factors that have to be addressed today than there were then.
Q: Do you feel an obligation as a pastor to help educate the congregation?
A: One hundred percent. Now here’s the funny thing: People get really edgy when you try to mix politics in spiritual conversation, which is strange to me. Our spirituality should impact every arena in life, but there has been a generation that believes politics’ place is outside the church. But our beliefs should impact everything in our world, and if we don’t have those conversations, I think we have an uninformed people. And so we’re looking at ways to do that more.
Q: Would your church be more united in opposing abortion and same-sex marriage than on the refugee issue?
A: Yes, and I think we’ll be pretty united on the refugee question, as well, once we frame some of the discussion and the information. The question is: How do you show compassion and at the same time secure your borders? And I think there is an overall unified response that wants to say, we don’t want to shut our borders completely, but we also don’t want to have open borders where anyone can flood in. That doesn’t seem to make sense.
I think most in our congregation would be unified in wanting to help refugees but also support vetting procedures. But when you get down to specifics and executive orders and legislation, there’s probably going to be some differing opinions about what that looks like. I know we have, in this congregation, undocumented illegals who aren’t citizens of this country but who have been here almost their whole life, and this is a real issue for them. They’re very concerned. It’s a multifaceted struggle for all congregations, I think.
Q: Would you call this a conservative church?
A: Yes, not fundamental but conservative. For the most part, Baptists believe in diversity. Some people think Baptists are very narrow, and we have been in the past, but as a congregation we are not only multigenerational, we are multiethnic. We have an international class that runs anywhere from 40 to 80 people. We’ve had a lot of other people from Ethiopia and people from other countries who have landed here and felt safe here and engaged. We would not be your stereotypical, rigid Baptists of the past that most people think of. And yet you’ll still see a lot of Caucasian, a lot of conservative mixed in.
Q: If someone voted for Trump, does that mean that person necessarily supports what he is doing now with refugees?
A: No, I don’t think so at all, because quite frankly I think his position on refugees has been misinterpreted within the media. I don’t think it was a Muslim ban. I don’t think it was an attack on religion. I think he was pretty clear that this would be until we could vet who was coming in, that radical Muslim terrorists are our enemy right now. Radical — I want to be very clear on that part — and those that come from certain areas of the world, and so unfortunately you have to vet against that.
I don’t think it was a bigoted or a racist thing, although that’s still to be seen. What’s our policy going to be? It’s under great debate. But I don’t think the people who voted for Trump, that was the single greatest issue. I think security is a big issue for sure, and I think Supreme Court justices became a big issue for believers, knowing where our politics have been leading us there.
Certainly, I think life has always been a mantel of the church, and it should be. We should be defenders of life at every point. Those are big issues. Personal life issues of Donald Trump made it very hard to be real excited about Donald Trump sometimes, when you’re hearing things he’s saying publicly, but then position-wise it came down to having to look at some of those key issues.