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What Does the Bible Say About Refugees? Depends Who You Ask

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum pray at the Presidential Family Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, November 20, 2015. The question of how to treat Syrian refugees has evoked different reactions in political evangelicals.
Mark Kauzlarich
Reuters /Landov
Republican U.S. presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum pray at the Presidential Family Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, November 20, 2015. The question of how to treat Syrian refugees has evoked different reactions in political evangelicals.

Evangelicals see the Bible as the ultimate source of guidance for every aspect of life. But how exactly to apply to that to difficult moral dilemmas isn't always clear.

And this week, as the question of what to do about the plight of refugees from Syria and Iraq in the wake of the Paris attacks has become a national political debate, it's also become a moral question — one evangelicals are divided over.

'Our Faith Tells Us ...'

Speaking to a room of several hundred Iowa conservatives on Friday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said Christianity should permeate everything they do.

"You're called to be a Christian in every aspect of your life – including your work, your home, your business – whatever endeavor you get involved in, including politics for that matter," Rubio said.

Seven GOP presidential hopefuls were attending the Presidential Family Forum in downtown Des Moines, hosted by the conservative Christian group the Family Leader.

And at another point in the event, moderator Frank Luntz posed the question that many evangelicals are grappling with.

"Common sense tells us that we should keep these refugees out," Luntz said. "But our faith tells us to help those in genuine need. "

Luntz had hardly finished his sentence before Texas Sen. Ted Cruz jumped in to say America was already helping. Cruz says the U.S. is spending more than a billion dollars to help refugees.

Cruz has called for blocking Muslim Syrians from entering the U.S., while several of his rivals want to keep out all Syrian refugees.

That's at odds with the position of several major church groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals.

Matthew Soerens is with the evangelical refugee resettlement agency World Relief. He says refugees go through extensive security screening by the federal government — but that's not the only thing Christians should consider.

"Our job isn't just to ask, 'Is this safe?' It's also to ask the question that was asked of Jesus, which is, 'Who is my neighbor?' " Soerens said.

Soerens says the Bible teaches Christians to help their neighbors — even if it means taking a risk.

'We've Got To Get Ourselves Right'

That argument isn't going over well with some conservatives, like Tim Knapp of Ankeny, Iowa.

"Why would we want to endanger ourselves while trying to help those people? Knapp said.

While acknowledging that many refugees are fleeing terrorism themselves, Knapp referred to a parable from the Bible about a farmer whose enemy sabotages his crops by planting a type of weeds — called tares — among the wheat.

The trouble, he says, is that you can't tell right away which is which.

"The tares are in with the wheat. We're gonna have to figure out how to get the tares out of the wheat," Knapp said.

Beyond security, a bigger worry for Eric South of Urbandale is how to take care of refugees once they're here.

"One of the main focuses of Christianity is to get yourself right and then help somebody else," he said.

South said the U.S. should address its own economic problems before doing more for the rest of the world, and referred to another Bible story.

"The parable of, how can you remove the splinter from your friend's eye if you've got a beam in your own eye?" he said. "Which means we've got to get ourselves right before we can start helping people in a massive way like they're talking about."

Savannah Wood, of Colfax, feels differently.

"I think that it is kind of odd for people to say that they're going to live according to Christian values and then not let people in," Wood said.

But she seemed to be in the minority at this gathering of Iowa evangelicals. Don Charleston of Altoona said the argument that the teachings of the Bible mean the United States should open its doors to Syrian refugees is "just PC talk, being politically correct."

Charleston said those who argue for accepting Syrian refugees are only reading the parts of the Bible they agree with.

"A lot of these people are taking the Bible and stripping it out to segments that they like and they want. They don't read the entire Scripture for what it's worth," he said.

For an emotional question like how to respond to the fear of terrorism, the answer from the Bible may depend on whom you ask.

And evangelicals are getting different answers from their church leaders and their political heroes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.