Religion and refugees


Staff Reports

The Conversation

Religion and refugees are deeply entwined in the US

October 31, 2018


Stephanie J. Nawyn

Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Gender in Global Context, Michigan State University

Disclosure statement

Stephanie J. Nawyn previously received funding from the U.S. Department of State Fulbright Program, and dissertation funding through the University of Southern California provided by the Haynes Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts Foundation.


Michigan State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Robert Bowers lashed out at what he believed to be a Jewish plot to bring more refugees and asylum seekers to the U.S. before allegedly murdering 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Bowers’s claim that HIAS, a prominent Jewish humanitarian organization, was bringing migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala northward to commit violence was false. But it is true that many religious communities in the U.S., including American Jews, have long supported refugees and asylum-seeking migrants who arrive in the U.S.

In my research on the nonprofits that resettle and assist these newcomers, I’ve found that while religious communities continue to do this work through faith-based nonprofits and individual congregations, there are signs that some white Christians no longer support this mission.

Religious advocacy on behalf of refugees

The idea of welcoming the stranger is central to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It originally arose from cultures born in deserts where leaving someone outside the city gates could be a death sentence. Religious leaders of those faiths often connect that ethic to a responsibility to shield refugees and other immigrants from violence and oppression.

Starting in the late 19th century, and during the Holocaust, faith communities appealed to the U.S. government to welcome Jews seeking safety from persecution. They also advocated for allowing Armenians, who were murdered en masse by leaders of the Ottoman Empire, to immigrate to America.

After World War II, an alliance between Protestant, Catholic and Jewish organizations finally swayed policymakers to adopt a more humanitarian-focused U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. then joined with other nations to sign the 1951 Geneva Convention, a U.N. agreement that established the rights of refugees to legal protection.

Among the convention’s main tenets is a global ban on sending refugees back to countries where they will be unsafe. This sometimes requires resettling refugees in a safer country. Faith-based organizations have been partnering with the U.S. government ever since.

The sanctuary movement

Between 1951 and 1980, the government resettled refugees in the U.S. on an ad hoc basis without spending much on assisting them. During this time, faith-based organizations filled in gaps to ensure refugees got off to a good start in the U.S.

Religious groups also advocated for asylum seekers, people who arrived seeking protection without first getting refugee status. Between 1980 and 1991, almost 1 million Central Americans crossed the U.S. border seeking asylum. From the start, the government denied most of their petitions.

Many Christian and Jewish leaders advocated on behalf of these migrants. They preached sermons, lobbied the government and organized protests calling for protecting Central Americans asylum seekers. Hundreds of religious communities provided sanctuary, usually inside houses of worship, and gave them legal support.

In 1985 the Center for Constitutional Rights sued the federal government on behalf of the American Baptist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Methodist Church and four other religious organizations, claiming discrimination against Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers. The government later settled the class action lawsuit.

Faith-based nonprofits supporting refugees today

Ever since Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act, creating the current system of refugee resettlement, U.S. faith-based organizations have played a central role in it.

There are nine national voluntary agencies that work directly with the government, six or which are faith-based. One is Jewish, one Catholic, one evangelical Christian and three are mainline Protestant. These groups arrange for refugees to find housing, land jobs and enroll in English classes. They do so regardless of the newcomers’ own religions or their countries of origin.

In my research, I have found that staff at faith-based organizations commonly use religious rhetoric to justify their work and to describe their commitment to that work.

At the same time, religiously based refugee organizations frame their efforts using interfaith language. They invoke the ethical imperative to provide asylum and refuge in ways that cross-cut multiple religious traditions as they collect and disburse money and household goods – and mobilize volunteers.

I found that staff at faith-based organizations use religious rhetoric in ways that are explicitly inclusive, being careful not to exclude refugees from other religions.

“The Jewish dimension is helping people realize that America is a place that welcomes all, and helping people that have come from a land where maybe sometimes being a Jew was considered worse than dirt,” a director of a local office of HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, told me. “Do we apply those same kinds of principles to other communities that we help? Absolutely.”

The director of a Catholic Charities office echoed that sentiment. “We have a saying,” he told me. “We help people not because they are Catholic, but because we are.”

Most Americans in this movement support organizations that share their own faith. But these nonprofits also form interfaith networks that support refugees and asylees. Secular groups do this charitable work as well.

Changing religious politics

Despite the deep foundation of religious belief and morality for granting asylum, this connection may be fraying, at least for some communities. In response to a record number of people displaced globally, especially nonwhites and Middle Easterners, I’m seeing signs that the moral framework supporting asylum is giving way in some quarters to support for restrictive policies that avoid any moral or international obligation to asylum seekers.

This became clear when the Trump administration enacted its “zero tolerance” policy, which it said justified arresting anyone crossing the border without documentation – including people with babies and toddlers. Government agents and contractors subsequently separated more than 2,650 children from their parents, sparking outrage.

Many faith leaders spoke out against the child separation, like prominent evangelical leader Franklin Graham, without directly criticizing aggressive border enforcement. But many have been more pointed in their comments, specifically calling out immigrant exclusion as antithetical to their religious beliefs. Mainline Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Catholic and evangelical Christian groups all released statements against tighter immigration enforcement itself.

What is unusual is that some conservative Christian groups have begun to lobby in favor of strengthened immigration enforcement. This is a break from the past. While there have been theological differences between conservative and mainline Protestant Christians on a number of issues, welcoming the stranger had been one point upon which Christians generally agreed.

Race and racial politics are intertwined with this split. There now appears to be an inverse relationship in the U.S. between religiosity and support for asylum among white Americans. In a Pew survey conducted in May 2018, only 43 percent of white Protestants and 25 percent of white evangelical Christians thought that the U.S. had a responsibility to accept refugees.

Conversely, 63 percent of black Protestants and 65 percent of the religiously unaffiliated thought that the nation has that responsibility. Another recent Pew survey, which didn’t sum up the perspectives of Jews or Muslims, showed broad support for a border wall among white evangelicals and mainline Protestants, and opposition among black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated.

It’s unclear whether this represents a downward trend in white Christian support for people seeking safe haven. Following the mass murder of Pittsburgh Jews, it will be important to watch changes in attitudes toward refugees and other migrants.

The Conversation

The lasting impact of Luther’s Reformation: 4 essential reads

October 31, 2018

Author: Kalpana Jain, Senior Religion + Ethics Editor

It was over 500 years ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, that a German monk, Martin Luther, initiated a split in the Roman Catholic Church leading to the Protestant Reformation.

In his “95 Theses,” nailed to Germany’s Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther challenged the practice of selling papal indulgences that promised individuals absolution from their sins and a way into heaven. In doing so, Luther questioned the overall authority of the Church.

Scholars writing for The Conversation have analyzed the lasting impact of the moment, including Christianity’s division into Protestantism and Catholicism. Here are four essential reads.

1. The spiritual virtuoso

One question that scholars have often asked is how a single document managed to trigger such a dramatic change.

University of Oregon’s Marion Goldman and historian Steve Pfaff, explain that when Luther posted his theses, at the age of 34, he was an ordained priest and a biblical theology scholar at University of Wittenberg. His personal life and spiritual practice played a key role in drawing “enthusiastic support from ordinary people,” they argue. Indeed, it was Luther’s students who first responded to his message that all Christians are created equal and could reach heaven based on their own faith.

In addition, Luther set an example through his own spiritual life as a monk of almost 20 years’ standing. As Goldman and Pfaff write, he continually tried to achieve spiritual perfection:

“Beginning his day at 3 a.m., Luther tried to purify himself through practices like fasting, confession, reading scriptures late into the night and silently praying at almost every moment. For penance, he fasted to the point of emaciation and would even strike himself with a whip.”

2. Spreading literacy

An important contribution that went beyond religion was how he helped bring people together under a common German language.

Indiana University’s Richard Gunderman writes that Luther “wanted ordinary people to assume more responsibility for reading the Bible.”

After he was branded an outlaw for refusing to recant his teachings, Luther took shelter in a castle. During his two years in hiding he translated the New Testament from Latin into German. He did this just a few years after the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, which made wide dissemination possible.

Gunderman explains that this translation of the Bible provided a “single German vernacular, helping to bring people together around a common tongue.”

Luther promoted the view that people would come closer to God, by reading the Bible on their own and provided Bible commentaries to help them make that direct encounter with the scripture. At the time, farming was the main vocation and most people did not know how to read. Gunderman adds,

“In promoting his point of view, Luther helped to provide one of the most effective arguments for universal literacy in the history of Western civilization.”

3. Priestly celibacy

Much like today, issues of mandatory priestly celibacy were a source of conflict among Christians in the 16th century. Scholar of early Christianity Kim Haines-Eitzen writes that priests faced accusations of sexual impropriety and corruption, which led to other reform movements in the 16th century.

In the divergent views that emerged, Luther was among those who argued that “allowing priests to marry would prevent cases of sexual immorality.” Haines-Eitzen explains how Luther drew upon Paul’s letters, the most influential apostle of the early Christian movement, for support of his views. In the earliest recorded discussion on celibacy, Paul says that for those who could not exercise self control, marriage was a better option.

4. Impact in America

Perhaps a little-known story is how some 400 years later, a small group of Americans would try to reunite Protestants and Catholics.

Religion historian David Mislin explains how Protestants in the U.S. – alarmed by the growing numbers of atheists and agnostics – committed itself to uniting Christianity so as to stop the spread of such ideas.

He writes about a noted theologian, Newman Smyth, who declared that “a Christianity divided in its own house against itself” could not survive. The group, of course, did not succeed in its efforts.

But as Mislin concludes,

“In fact, the main unintended consequence of the unity campaign was that it caused people to realize that they did not want actual unity. It was possible, in other words, to accept the post-Reformation division of Christianity. The differences separating the Protestants and Catholics could be shrugged off as ‘peculiarities’ rather than intolerable divisions.”

The Conversation

How the god you worship influences the ghosts you see

October 25, 2017 7


Frank T. McAndrew

Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology, Knox College

Disclosure statement

Frank T. McAndrew does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

If you’ve ever seen a ghost, you have something in common with 18 percent of Americans.

But while there’s evidence that our brains are hardwired to see ghosts, the apparitions we see tend to vary.

Historians who study and catalogue ghostly encounters across time will tell you that ghosts come in a range of shapes and forms. Some haunt individuals, appearing in dreams or popping up at unexpected times. Others haunt a specific location and are prepared to spook any passersby. Some are the spitting images of what were once real humans. And then there are the noisy and troublesome poltergeists, which appear as uncontrollable supernatural forces instead of people.

What might explain such discrepancies? And are some people more likely to see ghosts than others? It turns out that our religious background could play a role.

Religion might ease one fear

Some argue that religion evolved as a terror management device, a handy way to remove the uncertainty surrounding one of the scariest things we can imagine: death.

Almost every religion offers an explanation for what happens to us after we die, with the assurance that death isn’t the end. And there is, in fact, evidence that very religious people don’t fear death as much as others.

Protestants, Catholics and Muslims all believe in a day of resurrection and judgment, in which our souls are directed to heaven (“Jannah” in the case of Muslims) or hell based upon our good deeds (or misdeeds) during our time spent on Earth. Catholics also believe in a halfway house called purgatory, in which people who aren’t quite worthy of heaven but are too good for hell can pay their dues before getting a ticket to paradise.

Buddhists and Hindus believe in a cycle of death and reincarnation that can eventually result in a permanent spiritual state, provided you play your cards right over each successive lifetime. Even the Jewish faith, which doesn’t really focus on the afterlife, assumes that an afterlife does exist.

By following a clear set of rules, worshipers can assert control: They know what they have to do to make good things, rather than bad things, happen to them after they take the big dirt nap.

Tormented souls and sinister demons

But there’s a catch.

Religion’s talent for easing our anxiety about death may have had the perverse effect of increasing the likelihood that we’ll be on edge about ghosts, spirits and other supernatural beings. This, however, may depend upon how religious you actually are.

All of the available evidence suggests that those who describe themselves as believers – but who don’t attend church regularly – are twice as likely to believe in ghosts than those at the two extremes of religious belief: nonbelievers and the deeply devout.

With most religions populated by an impressive cadre of prophets, gods, spirits, angels and miracles, the tenets of religious faith might shape what you see. They could determine whether a visitor from the spirit world is a welcome or unwelcome guest, while also influencing whom you think you’re meeting.

For example, in Medieval Catholic Europe, ghosts were assumed to be the tormented souls of people suffering for their sins in purgatory. But during the Protestant Reformation, since most Protestants believed that souls went immediately to heaven or hell, paranormal activity was thought to be the work of angels, demons or other decidedly nonhuman supernatural beings.

While most Protestant sects today are largely silent about the existence of ghosts, Catholic theology remains amenable to the existence of ghosts. Catholics typically believe that God may permit dead individuals to visit their counterparts on Earth, but the church has traditionally condemned occult activities such as seances and Ouija boards.

In some religions, such as Voodoo, spirits and ghosts play a central role. Religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism support a belief in ghosts, but ghosts play only a minor role in the religion itself. For Hindus, ghosts are the souls of individuals who suffered a violent death or of people who were not accorded the appropriate and required death rituals. Buddhist ghosts are reincarnated individuals who may be sorting out bad karma.

Muslims don’t believe that dead people can return as ghosts, so if a Muslim thinks he’s encountered a ghost, it’s thought to be the work of Jinn – beings that contain a mix of spiritual and physical properties, whose intentions can be malevolent or benevolent depending upon the situation. There are several other religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, that also believe ghostly apparitions are demons in disguise rather than the souls of deceased people.

Jews typically discourage occult activities designed to contact the dead, and there seems to be less consensus within Judaism as to the status of ghosts. However, Jewish oral traditions include stories of evil ghosts (Dybbuks) and kindly, helpful ghosts (Ibburs) who try to insert themselves in human affairs.

It appears people across eras, religions and cultures have always been curious about a spiritual world that exists behind the curtain of death.

Together, it speaks to how thoughts, fears and visions of death are integral to human life.

Comments: Kyran Mannix, logged in via Google —I think John Lennon said it best: God is a concept by which we measure our pain

Terri Carlson, logged in via Google: Ouija boards for Spirit Ford team that they would be a bad idea but at one time I just didn’t know and I didn’t know if it work I believe that there was life have her guess just because of Love itself if I met somebody on the board and they were little tricky but then told me to stop using the port and has been there not harmful at all cuz you try to tell me what to do just kind of a comfort thing for like 3 years now you think if it was somebody bad they would be having fun making me miserable I don’t know what to think I just believe in love and that’s why I hope is around me I was in hopes to find my parents but then as soon as I come in contact with somebody I never did ask about them but I don’t think that you are supposed to if something comes to you great but I just felt like I shouldn’t ask after all that work I hope I’m okay was wondering if anybody else had a similar experience I do not use the board I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to until after I hope I will be forgiven but it seems I have a friend feels like it to me not a lot of people are here for me but like I said he’s just kind of makes me feel comfortable without telling me Tails or anything like everything is going to be okay I think you for reading my post×675.jpg

Staff Reports