It feels surreal, as our country approaches the 242nd anniversary of its freedom, to be celebrating the fact that our government is no longer pulling crying toddlers and infants away from their parents along the southern border.
Equally strange has been the sluggish response of some evangelical leaders, whose notion of biblical mercy is one that shines less brightly on immigrants. Rev. Franklin Graham, for example, only last week acknowledged that the U.S. policy of separating migrant families was “disgraceful.”
That word should have thundered two months ago from his pulpit. And other words, too: Heartbreaking, inhumane, cold-blooded, shameful, un-Christian, un-American, immoral, indefensible.
All the same things we’ve heard from people of all faiths who don’t claim to be on God’s personal speed-dial, yet who have no difficulty recognizing cruelty when they see it.
Even when he finally spoke out against the separating of migrant families, Graham refused to blame the president. “This is not the administration’s fault. I don’t point the finger at Trump,” said the son of the late, iconic Billy Graham.
He then shrunk behind the same outlandish lie that President Trump’s allies had been using to defend what was happening: Immigration law requires border officers to yank some kids away from their parents. It’s all the fault of Congress!
Not even the White House, which solely made the decision to warehouse more migrant children, successfully adhered to that narrative. In fact, Trump’s flailing team changed its story more than a dozen times.
In the beginning, the aggressive push to split up families at the border was described as a new Justice Department policy. Then, on June 18, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said No, it wasn’t a new policy. A day later, Marc Short, another Trump official, said, Yes, it was.
Nielsen had also asserted it was “offensive” to suggest that taking children from their parents was intended to deter illegal immigrants from coming. Within hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said exactly the opposite to Fox News.
Trump, Sessions and Nielsen all spouted the line that forced separation was required by flawed legislation and that Congress must act to fix it. Then the dependably muddled Kellyanne Conway told CNN that nobody ever claimed the law imposed mandatory separation of children from their mothers and fathers.
The dizzying whirl of contradictions culminated with a memorable flip-flop by Trump himself. Five days after telling reporters that the family-separation policy couldn’t legally be rescinded by an executive order, he sat down and signed one.
“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” he explained.
Yeah, it’s a total bummer, seeing all those kids fenced in. Frightened. Confused. Tears in their little eyes.
But what had Trump imagined such scenes would look like and feel like, back when he approved the plan? How did he not foresee a national outcry?
It wasn’t the president’s tender conscience that made him back down, but rather the strong reaction from his own family, worried Republican lawmakers and high-profile preachers including — belatedly — Franklin Graham.
As ideologically fractured as our country is, there remains a core decency that transcends politics and religious doctrine. It has been animated by compassion for children in distress, and also profound sympathy for any parent forced to watch a son or daughter taken away.
The administration limited media access to the camps and compounds, because the White House understood that the optics were “horrible,” in the words of Robert Jeffress, a popular Baptist pastor and avid Trump booster.
And, sure enough, it didn’t take much to horrify a majority of the public. Aerial shots gave the impression of prison flyovers, and an audio recording of crying children at a detention center went viral.
Yes, fix the immigration laws. Improve border security. But, as moral common ground, can we at least agree not to lock up innocent kids as a political strategy?
Trump’s executive order last week temporarily halted most family separations at the border, but it did nothing to help more than 2,300 children who’ve been taken from their loved ones and remain incarcerated.
The TV prayers and professed dismay of pastors Graham and Jeffress are a weak substitute for action. They should use their political friendship with Trump to help expedite reuniting all these youngsters and families as quickly as possible.
True evangelicals try to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, a man who would be sickened by what’s happened here, and would never have waited so long to speak up.