Soul-searching on the 4th of July: Wide-spread rebuke of Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy

By The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen and Erica M. Ramirez

Donald Trump’s unflappable white evangelical base has swallowed hard and overlooked much of the President’s troubling, immoral personal behavior. Consistent polling data show that evangelical Christians voted for Trump (in part) because they believed he grasped their most critical concerns about the future of the nation, including that he would appoint reliably conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Recent developments have revealed, however, that certain aspects of the Trump agenda significantly depart from the values of the American mainstream, including his white evangelical base. After weeks of seeing images of children taken from their parents at the border, this Fourth of July finds many Americans soul-searching: what is the future story of the US that we desire, that we believe in? Whom do we trust to lead us towards that vision?

Findings released last week from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) the respected Washington D.C. nonprofit, nonpartisan public opinion research organization corroborate the now established divides that characterize our highly polarized nation. The data from PRRI show, for example, that Trump’s border wall and “stop and identify” laws still enjoy majority support from his base, with 68% and 79% supporting, respectively, and with Democrats strongly disapproving.

However, Trump’s recent foray into harsher border tactics has offended not only the broadest majorities of the American people but even the majority in his core constituency. In PRRI’s June 2018 national survey, a mere twenty percent of Americans overall support Trump’s zero tolerance and family separation policies; overwhelming majorities of Democrats (94%) and Independents (76%) oppose such treatment of immigrants and refugees. Likewise, a strong majority of Americans (71%) are opposed to the separation of children from their parents. Remarkably, in the face of this forceful disapprobation, the polling set reveals that fully 50% of PRRI’s Republican respondents also declined to support the policy, with 40% openly expressing their opposition. This July, there is strong consensus against Trump’s more aggressive border approach across all racial-ethnic categories: two-thirds of white Americans, the vast majority of Latinx (82%) and black respondents (93%), and across all major Christian traditions.

The President’s religious base is part of this vote of dissent. Fully 64% of the President’s dependable Christian supporters declined to express support for his family separation policies, while 51% openly oppose it. Progressive activist marches against Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric and action are no surprise, but in recent days even dependable Trump allies have hazarded sharp critique, including Franklin Graham. With a detectable crack in his base, the data reveal the masses simply aren’t with Trump on these harsher immigration policies.

Still, when asked whether America offers a good moral example to the world, a striking partisan split reappears. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans believe America does offer the world a good moral example, while a mere twenty percent of Democrats report the same. This difference suggests that any substantial alignment around a shared vision for the US could become stuck on the horns of this strong partisan divide. Yet, when the relatively strong, across-the-board rejection of Trump’s aggressive zero tolerance policy is combined in analysis with a reported broad agreement over America’s role as a place of refuge, the national alignment re-appears, with three of four respondents agreeing. Broken down by political persuasion, Republicans (54%), Independents (75%), and Democrats (90%) all agree: America should be a haven for those fleeing harsh conditions in their countries of origin.

As people across the nation come together around fireworks and fun this Fourth of July, surely echoes of the cries of children torn from their parent’s arms will trouble many. Who do we desire to be as a nation, and what story can we tell about our future that calls forth our best–a diverse, welcoming and moral America? It was Gandhi who said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”  At least one way to read this data is that a majority of Americans agree with Gandhi: our greatness indeed ought to be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us.


The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and leads of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn.

Erica M. Ramirez is Auburn’s Director of Applied Research and scholar of Pentecostalism and Latinx religion in the U.S.

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