Trump’s ‘s---hole’ remark rattles evangelicals, other Christians

Haitian church leaders attend seminary as part of the Micah Scholars program.
Haitian church leaders attend seminary as part of the Micah Scholars program. Courtesy photo.

The Rev. Vic Gordon of Wichita starts to tear up as he wrestles with what to say to his friends in Haiti.

He’ll head to see them next Friday: barely a week after President Donald Trump is reported to have asked lawmakers, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” referring to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.

It’s painful to hear people he loves spoken about in a derogatory way, Gordon says. He’s visited Haiti every year except one since 1990, teaching in seminary and working with the Haitian church. He’s even considered moving to the country.

“The kingdom of God is a vision from Jesus of all nations,” Gordon said. “We want to love Trump. We want to love Haitians. We want to love Norwegians.”

Trump’s derogatory words about immigrants from Africa and Central America have upset and angered American Christians, particularly those who have ties to missions work in those countries.

That includes evangelicals like Gordon, although some in national leadership roles have held strong in their support for Trump.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that President Trump made the remarks while discussing protecton for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. He then suggested that the United States should bring in more immigrants from countries such as Norway. U.S. senators Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., later said they did not recall Trump’s exact comments.

Sen. Tim Scott told the Charleston Post and Courier Friday that Sen. Lindsay Graham, also a South Carolina Republican, had been in the meeting and told him reports about Trump’s language were “basically accurate.”

Trump seemed to dispute the reports Friday, tweeting that while his language in the meeting was “tough,” “this was not the language used.”

Evangelical relationships

Gordon said the word “saddening” springs to mind when he thinks of Trump’s remarks. Gordon, who previously worked as campus pastor and professor of biblical studies and theology at the University of Sioux Falls and the evangelical Wheaton College, later pastored First Baptist Church in Wichita from 1988-2000. The church later merged into City Life Church, where Gordon is an elder.

“I would hope that those who call themselves evangelical would take a look at what Scripture says … and ask themselves if this is the kind of approach we want to identify evangelicalism with,” Gordon said.

At the same time, Gordon believes the word “evangelical” is changing, becoming more defined by politics than theology.

Exit polls showed that 81 percent of white evangelical voters cast their ballot for Trump.

The Rev. Jeff Isaacs, lead pastor at Riverlawn Christian Church in Wichita, said that if Trump made those remarks, he believes it would be a “black eye” on Trump’s relationships with evangelical Christians who work across the globe.

He also wanted to stress the “if,” pointing out that there were conflicting reports and that he did not know the context of the words.

“If he said that, it was a very ungodly thing to say about those people that were created in God’s image and the place they live,” said Isaacs, whose church does work in Africa and Haiti. “There’s no asterisk beside that Great Commission by Jesus. We are to go to all nations.”

Some have pointed out that places like sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti are also majority Christian: Haiti was 86.8 percent Christian and sub-Saharan Africa was 62.7 percent Christian, making up over 23 percent of the world’s Christian population in 2010, according to Pew Research Center.

By 2060, sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to hold more than 4-in-10 of the world’s Christians.

Norway, in contrast, is rapidly becoming less religious. An annual survey of 4,000 Norwegians reported that 39 percent of respondents said they did not believe in God, while another 23 percent said they did not know, according to The Independent.

At the same time, condemnation has not been uniform.

Some members of Trump’s evangelical advisory council backed him, including the Rev. Johnnie Moore, spokesman for the council, who questioned whether Trump had made the comments at all.

The Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, told The Washington Post that he wouldn’t have used the president’s language, but did support Trump’s views “100 percent.”

“What a lot of people miss is, America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background,” Jeffress told The Post.

Other Trump supporters did not publicly comment, including Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the evangelical Liberty University and the Rev. Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Graham had retweeted a picture of his daughter Cissie Graham Lynch working in a hospital in Zambia just hours before the story about Trump’s remarks was published, saying he was “thankful that my children have a heart for missions.”

For Kent Annan, senior fellow at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, writing a piece for evangelical magazine Christianity Today was a chance to acknowledge that daily life in Haiti is difficult, but that there is a complex history behind poverty in places like Haiti.

He told The Eagle that he wanted to reflect on how “people are suffering in some of these countries, but there’s also beauty in these countries. When other people are suffering in other countries, this is a moment not to reject them, but a moment to welcome.”

It’s hard to predict how this will affect Trump’s evangelical support, he said, but Annan is hopeful Christians will return to the unifying principal of supporting people in vulnerable situations.

‘Because Jesus came’

Response was also swift from other Christians.

The Rev. Susan Langhauser at Advent Lutheran in Olathe said the words particularly struck her since her church has a physical therapy clinic in Haiti. The Lutheran Church also has a strong presence in Tanzania and Ethiopia.

The idea of bringing in certain people because they’re from a better economic situation than others “cuts at the basic foundation of the Christian message,” she said.

“I’m certainly embarrassed when the leader who purports to be a Christian doesn’t present himself in that way,” Langhauser said.

While many pointed to Trump’s remarks as being rooted in economics, others also pointed to racism.

The Rev. Dr. Brent Johnston, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wichita, said in an email that Trump’s remarks “reveal what his feelings are for people of color from disadvantaged circumstances and countries.”

Their church includes a congregation of refugee Congolese families.

The Sisters of Mercy, a community of Roman Catholic women who work in many of the countries referenced by Trump, said in a statement that Trump’s language was “consistent with the racist decision making and attitude” of the Administration.

Jesuit priest the Rev. James Martin, editor of Jesuit magazine America, posted on Facebook comparing Trump’s words to how the phrase “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was said of Jesus and his hometown.

“God, in other words, came from a “sh#*hole” place,” Martin wrote. “And he pointedly asked us to welcome him whenever he appeared as a “stranger,” or as one of our “least” brothers and sisters. That’s why we have all these people come. Because Jesus came.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess