Hispanic Christians and Evangelical Persecution Narratives

Hispanic Christians and Evangelical Persecution Narratives May 15, 2017

Half of Hispanic Christians Worry About Deportation Under Trump,” read the headline of a Christianity Today article earlier this year. While still conservative, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today has increasingly become a voice of reason within the evangelical community. In pointing this out, the author was noting something many evangelicals had probably not considered.

White evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted for Trump, despite his insistence on connecting Hispanic immigrants with crime and his promise to deport undocumented immigrants. These same evangelicals are quick to focus on Christians abroad who suffer violence or persecution, and to sympathize with Christian communities in other nations or with fellow Christians they believe are being persecuted in the U.S. But what of Christian communities in their own country that may be torn apart by Trump’s policies?

Consider the white evangelical Christian response to ISIS. A year or two ago many of my evangelical friends on Facebook changed their profile picture to an image of old arabic lettering on black. Curious, I looked it up and found that it was an expression of solidarity for those Christians suffering under ISIS. I had known about ISIS for some time, and I knew that their victims were diverse—Christians, Yazidis, Muslims who didn’t share their particular beliefs.

In other words, ISIS didn’t target Christians specifically; the group tortured, enslaved, or killed anyone who did not share their specific approach to Islam. Given this reality, white evangelicals’ insistence on making ISIS about Christian persecution seemed narrow and self-absorbed.

What of the headline I began this article with? Half of Hispanic Christians Worry About Deportation Under Trump. The vast majority of the Hispanic population in the U.S. is Christian. True, many evangelicals do not view Hispanic Catholics as saved, but a growing number of Hispanics are Protestant. And while, yes, there is a far cry between deportation and terror at the hands of ISIS, both involve families and communities being torn apart. And I’m left wondering how evangelicals determine which groups—and which problems—they care about, and which they don’t.

What sort of trouble counts as reason for concern, and what sort of trouble doesn’t? Many evangelicals support the removal of Obamacare provisions that protect the health of millions of Americans, most of them Christians. There are two reasons this looks different to evangelicals, however. First, evangelicalism stems from a tradition that has long valued and emphasized martyrdom. Christians dying due to persecution for their religion looks completely different from Christians dying from untreated diabetes or pancreatic cancer. Second, evangelicals believe they have a solution to death due to lack of healthcare—the sort of cost-sharing programs they elevate as a replacement for health insurance.

There’s also an issue regarding who counts as part of the in-group and who does not. Evangelicals don’t typically see mainline Christians, or Catholics, as part of their group. That changes when it comes to religious persecution abroad, however. Abroad, evangelicals draw attention to the persecution of Christian groups that they would consider heretic in other circumstances—groups whose theology and practice are far different from their own. Within the U.S., in contrast, mainline Christians are frequently viewed as an oppositional force—especially when those groups endorse progressive positions or ideas.

Do publications like Christianity Today have a chance at convincing evangelicals to see undocumented immigrants as part of their in-group? I suspect not, and here’s why: Those who support Trump’s hardline on immigration, including many evangelicals, typically center the problem as one of laws being broken. They frequently discuss all undocumented workers as criminals, because they committed the “crime” of entering the country without proper permission. From their perspective, having your community and your family torn apart is what you get for breaking the law, regardless of your religion.

Of course, the persecution of Christians abroad can be a matter of laws being broken as well—laws against blasphemy, for instance. Evangelicals rightly judge these laws unjust. Laws controlling the freedom of movement, in contrast, are judged to be just. I’m not so sure—but then, I’m also not an evangelical, or politically conservative. I wonder whether coming face to face with the reality of deportation—with separated families and holes torn in communities—would change evangelicals’ minds about the justness of such laws, or of their implementation. Maybe—but then again, maybe not.

Where we choose to exercise compassion—and where we do not—is a fascinating thing. Who and what we choose deserving of our compassion—and who and what we judge not deserving—is just as interesting.

Note: According to the New York Times, the majority of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico or elsewhere in Central and South America. However, two-thirds of all Hispanic Americans were born in the United States and more green card holders are from Mexico than from any other country. A comparison of these two infographics suggests that half of all immigrants to the U.S. from Mexico are properly documented. In this article I discuss undocumented Hispanic immigrants to the U.S., because that is where much of the rhetoric on immigration currently centers.

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