Trump tempest echos Muslim debate roiling evangelical leaders

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s persistently anti-Muslim rhetoric has kept the GOP up in arms to protect their party from being tied to Islamophobic bigots. But his latest utterance on the subject also recalls positions taken earlier by some U.S. religious leaders, to the consternation of more moderate counterparts.

A statement from Trump’s campaign released Monday called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Trump stood by the policy in subsequent appearances despite widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a rival in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, called Trump’s stance “ridiculous” and unproductive. “Donald Trump is unhinged,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also in the presidential hunt, said on Twitter. “His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.” Bay State Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, also blasted Trump’s proposal as “ridiculous” following a State House event Monday evening.

The division reflects a similar debate that has roiled the evangelical Christian community for months. Franklin Graham, son of televangelist Billy Graham and head of Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization, last month posted a message similar to Trump’s on Facebook, arguing against allowing Muslim immigrants into the U.S.

“We cannot allow Muslim immigrants to come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror,” Graham posited. “If we continue to allow Muslim immigration, we’ll see much more of what happened in Paris – it’s on our doorstep.”

He posted a similar comment in July.

Similarly, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., in a sermon, encouraged students to carry guns and let them know he had one in his back pocket. His remarks came during a chapel service following the San Bernardino shooting.

“If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them,” Falwell said, referring to radicalized terrorists.

Many other church leaders, however, strongly disagree. Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took to the Washington Post op-ed page to slam Trump’s “reckless, demagogic” rhetoric and called on all “who care about religious liberty” to denounce it.

“Those of us who are Christians ought to stand up for religious liberty not just when our rights are violated but on behalf of others too,” he wrote. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., with about 15.5 million members.

Rachel Held Evans, the best-selling author of “Searching for Sunday” and a popular blogger, on Monday used Facebook to urge fans to “speak up and act” against Trump’s statements and rhetoric like Falwell’s.

“The hysteria and xenophobia has gotten completely out of control, and it runs totally contrary to our country’s commitment to religious freedom and especially to the teachings of Jesus,” she wrote. “If a pastor, family member, friend, or acquaintance expresses support for violent rhetoric against minorities, speak up. Call it out. It’s not okay.”

Evans went one step further, suggesting: “We can stop wondering if we would have protested the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. This is exactly how it begins.”

“Time for all of us to speak up,” she said. “This isn’t a joke anymore.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.

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The first presidential primary will take place in New Hampshire on Feb. 9. (Massachusetts voters get to weigh in on “Super Tuesday,” March 1.)  For whom will you vote to be your party’s standard bearer?

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