Horror on the border: Some journalists starting to spot old cracks in Trump's support

Remember that "lesser of two evils" theme in some of the coverage of Donald Trump's run for the White House?

The whole idea was that there were quite a few religious believers -- evangelicals and Catholics alike -- who were not impressed with The Donald, to say the least. However, they faced a painful, hellish decision in voting booths because the only mainstream alternative to this bizarre GOP candidate was Hillary Rodham Clinton, someone whose record on religious liberty, right-to-life issues, etc., etc., was truly horrifying.

Thus, that lesser-of-two-evils equation or, as a prophetic Christianity Today piece put it: "Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump." Here at GetReligion, I addressed this pre-election trend here: "Listen to the silence: It does appear that most evangelicals will reluctantly vote Trump."

Now, ever since, I have urged journalists to look for the old cracks inside the evangelical and Catholic support for Trump. Yes, lots of white evangelicals were part of Trump's early base during the primaries. But just as many voted for him on election day while holding their noses (or while carrying a barf bag). At some point, I have argued, journalists could look for these cracks and find important stories.

This brings me to that New York Times headline the other day: "Conservative Religious Leaders Are Denouncing Trump Immigration Policies."

Conservative religious leaders who have long preached about the sanctity of the family are now issuing sharp rebukes of the Trump administration for immigration policies that tear families apart or leave them in danger.
The criticism came after recent moves by the administration to separate children from their parents at the border, and to deny asylum on a routine basis to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence.
Some of the religious leaders are the same evangelicals and Roman Catholics who helped President Trump to build his base and who have otherwise applauded his moves to limit abortion and champion the rights of religious believers.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, a son of the famed evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham and an outspoken defender of President Trump, said in an interview ... on the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I think it’s disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.”

To its credit, the Times team tuned in several crucial statements from conservative and moderate religious groups. That's crucial, when lots of journalists are seeing blasts like this in the Twitter-verse, care of a Guardian scribe:


For example, follow the links here:

A coalition of evangelical groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, sent a letter [.pdf here] to President Trump on June 1 pleading with him to protect the unity of families and not to close off all avenues to asylum for immigrants and refugees fleeing danger.
The Southern Baptist Convention, a conservative evangelical denomination that is the nation’s largest Protestant church, passed a resolution ... in Dallas calling for immigration reform that maintains “the priority of family unity.” The measure called for both securing the nation’s borders, and providing a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants living in the country. It passed on a near unanimous vote of the thousands of delegates in the room.
“We declare that any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” the resolution said.

That is a very interesting and complex resolution text that deserved more coverage, especially coming out of the same convention that welcomed -- for the most part -- an address by Vice President Mike Pence.

Now, if you paid close attention to that Pence speech, it's interesting to note when the SBC messengers gave the vice president polite applause and when there were cheers from the whole audience, as opposed to one or two isolated "whoops" from Trump supporters.

Lots of Southern Baptists, in other words, like Trump more than the alternatives on the national stage. However, their support is linked to issues at the heart of their conservative faith -- which is why tearing children out of the arms of their parents is not something that they welcome.

You can see the same pattern with Catholic leaders. Back to the Times:

... (The) nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, opened their meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a strong statement from the group’s president that cast asylum as a “right to life” issue -- language usually applied only to issues like abortion and euthanasia.

"Usually"? That's a rather strange reading of Catholic literature, even on hot-button issues such as health-care reform and the death penalty. Reading on:

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Catholic bishops’ conference and archbishop of Galveston-Houston, denounced a recent decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that women fleeing domestic violence and families fleeing gang violence are not eligible for asylum.
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” said Cardinal DiNardo in a statement he read aloud to the bishops.
The Catholic church has long advocated for the rights of immigrants and refugees, and while the bishops have criticized Mr. Trump’s immigration policies before, this letter amounted to their strongest censure yet.
“Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together,” the Cardinal wrote. “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”

If you want more information on this new-old trend, please see this analysis piece at The Atlantic by Emma Green: "Religious Leaders Condemn Family Separations -- but Not Necessarily Trump."

Now, there are all kinds of potential stories linked to the word "necessarily" in that headline.

What do I mean? Well, for starters, will Democrats ever show any willingness to discuss centrist, compromise stances on First Amendment and life issues -- in an attempt to peel off a few more evangelicals and Catholics? Will religious and cultural conservatives continue to face a political landscape in which they have no viable alternative to The Donald?

The key is that lots of evangelicals -- Southern Baptists, most obviously -- are not, repeat NOT, standing down when it comes to moral, cultural and religious issues in public life (think "culture wars" headlines). They are, however, looking for alternatives to naked partisan politics.

With this in mind, and because I am a stubborn man, please allow me to re-up my evolving typology on the cracks in evangelicalism, in the age of Trump. I ran this the other day in an #SBC18 wrap-up, but here it is again.

As a test question: Where would you put Franklin Graham in this typology?

(1) Many evangelicals supported Trump from the get-go. For them, Trump is great and everything is going GREAT.
(2) Other evangelicals may have supported Trump early on, but they have always seen him as a flawed leader -- but the best available. They see him as complicated and evolving and are willing to keep their criticisms PRIVATE.
(3) There are evangelicals who moved into Trump's tent when it became obvious he would win the GOP nomination. They think he is flawed, but they trust him to -- at least -- protect their interests, primarily on First Amendment issues.
(4) Then there are the lesser-of-two-evils Trump evangelicals who went his way in the general election, because they could not back Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. They believe Trump's team has done some good, mixed with quite a bit of bad, especially on race and immigration. They think religious conservatives must be willing to criticize Trump -- in public.
(5) There are evangelicals who never backed Trump and they never will. Many voted for third-party candidates. They welcome seeing what will happen when Trump team people are put under oath and asked hard questions (and ditto for FBI officials). However, they are willing to admit that Trump has done some good, even if in their heart of hearts they'd rather be working with President Mike Pence.
(6) Folks on the evangelical left simply say, "No Trump, ever." Anything he touches is bad and must be rejected. Most voted for Clinton and may have yearned for Bernie Sanders.

See the connections to the current headlines?

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