COMMENTARY: Trump in the middle

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin, |
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds his Bible while speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, September 19, 2015. | REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) – If Americans were listening, they likely heard the bells of irony peeling loud and clear on December 7.

On the same day the nation remembered the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the act of war that cast suspicion on thousands of Americans of Japanese dissent (and led to their internment), Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was proposing a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" because of the recent terror attacks by Islamic State loyalists in San Bernardino, Calif.

Trump was not advocating Korematsu Part II, but the comment caused wide-mouth gasps among Democrats and Republicans alike and rippled across the Middle East like a tsunami.

As ill-conceived as Trump's statement was, I understand – in a way – why he said what he said. Unlike our current commander-in-chief, Trump believes we are at war, and while not all Muslims are jihadists married to the ideology of the Islamic State, all members of the Islamic State are Muslim. If you are at war with an enemy, do not invite the enemy into your home for tea and biscuits.

There are those who parrot President Barack Obama's claim that ISIS is not Islamic, or that they are thugs in a cult of death who don't speak for Islam. But clearly they are and they do (their leader holds a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies), and recent surveys do betray the militancy of a significant portion of the Arab world. It is just this "fraction" of the Arab world, the president says, we need to worry about.

But even if the percentage of ISIS (or al Qaeda) loyalists among Muslims is small, even 5 percent, an army of 60 million potential jihadists may be among the ranks of 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide. In other words, they would be able to field a larger army than any army ever faced by the United States.

That army is motivated by Islamic religious zeal of a type that differs perhaps in both kind and degree from moderate Muslims, but it is zeal nonetheless. It is what motivates the jihadists to want to conquer dar al harb, or the world or war, and kill the kafir – the infidels like us.

If, in Trump's eyes, the jihadists who want to infiltrate the U.S. want to do so among the torrent of otherwise peaceful, moderate Muslims fleeing violence in the Middle East, then the logical thing to do is to crank the immigration floodgates closed for a time.

America's immigration history provides numerous lucid examples of where immigration has been halted for certain groups or strictly regulated to protect the interests of the country (though not always its noble interests). While some, such as the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, where designed to prevent foreign agitators and agents from entering the U.S., many acts, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, were sadly based on the idea of racial superiority and designed to keep certain ethnicities out.

They also had an economic dimension in that they prohibited the importation of more Chinese laborers. The same could be said for Dwight Eisenhower's deportation of 1.3 million illegal Mexican workers in 1954.

None of these, I believe, directly translate to the message Donald Trump is sending. Another example clearly does, though.


Islamic terrorism is not the United States' first experience with the practice of targeted and indiscriminate terror. During the period of cultural and political ferment that afflicted Europe in the late 1880s through the 1920s, poor economics and poor political representation were factors that led to the rise of the Anarchists.

Like many immigrants, the Anarchists – who disdained organized government and capitalism – came to America from Italy, Poland, Lithuania and the Balkans.

In 1886, Anarchists conducted their first bombing in Chicago's Haymarket Square. That bombing killed a Chicago policeman and wounded numerous bystanders. Afterward, the Anarchists began to organize in political cells and by 1903 they had grown strong enough to turn the head of the government.

In that year, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Immigration Act of 1903, also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act. It was the first immigration act passed by Congress that set in place measures for officials to inquire about political ideology when examining those who wanted to come to the United States. Those who were "opposed to organized government" were given one-way tickets back to their country of origin.

That law was challenged in the Supreme Court, but in 1904 the high court upheld the exclusion of Anarchists.

It was too late. In 1919, more than 30 bombs were mailed to politicians around the country and in the summer, another eight bombs were detonated in large cities across the country. In 1920, the deadliest attack took place in broad daylight in the middle of Wall Street.

As passersby were making their way through the storied financial district in New York, a horse-drawn wagon, loaded with dynamite, exploded. The blast eviscerated 30 pedestrians and the horse. It was the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history at the time, and further proof that not enough had been done in the way of excluding those from entering the country who would do Americans harm.

So presidents and legislators have, in fact, limited immigration before and sometimes with good reasons, including the protection of citizens or that law and order may be obtained. Most of those cases, however, where prior to the era of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965, which radically reoriented America's thinking on race, religion and immigration, and paved the way for the influx of Muslim immigrants from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.


If Trump had meant "Muslim" in the sense of a political belief about government, sharia law (which runs contrary to U.S. law in many respects), the refusal to extend to all people of faith religious liberty, the abuse of women and the condoning of terrorism and the practice of it, then Trump would be well within his right – if elected president – to call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration, the same way Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson did with Anarchists until assurances could be made that the enemy was kept out of the country.

Perhaps, even if Mr. Trump had said, "Donald Trump is proposing a temporary ban on all immigration from countries where jihadists with the Islamic State exist and conduct operations," we wouldn't be talking about this.

Trump, however, didn't say that. He called for ban on all "Muslim" immigration. That, and the context in which he said what he said, skews this response in a totally different direction.

Trump meant "Muslim" in the sense that all people of the Islamic faith must be excluded for their faith until there is some system in place for measuring whether or not the people entering are militants. I cannot support such a statement, because a government that will do so for all Muslims will do the same for all Christians someday. Some say it already is.

Certainly, precautions have to be taken to measure whether people are militant, but American immigration authorities have always vetted those with refugee and religious asylum claims. They even ask about religious opinions during their investigations. 

America can and should tighten up her borders and refuse to let her enemies in – even suspected ones. She cannot, however, make religion a primary factor for excluding anyone unless they are affirmatively of the ISIS stripe. How will we know the government is always getting it right? We likely won't, but that is a risk America has always taken when it has opened its doors to the "huddled masses."


For those of us in the church, our response has to be different. While we must be able to rely on our government to secure borders, punish lawbreakers, and capture or kill terrorists, those of us who support religious liberty must reject Trump's type of religious test for entry into the United States.

Why? Because proponents of religious liberty don't merely support it as a means to protect our own religious affections and practices. We support it for all people, of all nationalities, and even for people now without a country. We believe that safety and security for those fleeing violence isn't something we should offer only to Christians – to people like us.

As Christians, we should also view this recent influx of immigrants as the greatest missions opportunity the church in America has seen since missionaries first set foot among the throngs of people in China.

Islamists have kept the doors to evangelism closed in one-third of the world for hundreds of years. Now, part of that world is coming to us. Some of those who are coming just may be souls ready, conditioned by all they have experienced, to latch hold of the gospel of forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ. 

All of this is why Trump is partly right, but partly wrong – a case of "Trump in the Middle." It just so happens, his position also makes him a hot topic in private conversations, public debates and the news cycle. Above all, that is a place he loves to be.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.