The ‘Pro-Family’ Movement Has Little to Say About Family Separation

James Dobson, a founder of the pro-family movement, recently stated that he doesn’t “think anyone in the country is comfortable with children being separated from their parents.” Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After weeks of protests and widespread anger over the thousands of migrant and refugee children separated from their parents at the U.S. border, the Justice Department has finally begun returning some of the youngest children to their parents.

Horror stories continue to emerge: the 1-year-old forced to represent himself in immigration court; the 38 children whose parents cannot be located; the father who cries that having his child taken caused “much greater suffering” than the death threats by police officers in his native Honduras; the 14-month-old baby returned to his mother after 85 days covered in lice and dirt. At this point even if all the children are returned to their families, something that is not at all certain, the experience will likely have longer-term effects, possibly even on the children’s genetic codes. Yet one group has remained largely silent: the “pro-family” movement comprised largely of conservative white evangelicals.

Many evangelical leaders, such as Paula White, who chairs the White House Evangelical Advisory Board for Donald Trump, claim the tearing apart of families is justified by blaming the parents as criminals. White went so far as to claim that Jesus never broke any laws. “If he had broken the law,” she told CBN News, “then he would have been sinful and he would not have been our Messiah.” Despite the absurdity of this claim (Jesus was, after all, a refugee who was crucified for breaking the law, as noted by Talking Points Memo and numerous others), the dangerous logic in White’s statement is that those dubbed criminals are equated with sinners. According to this logic, criminals deserve punishment, not compassion—even, as it turns out, when children are involved.

James Dobson, a founder of the pro-family movement, recently stated that he doesn’t “think anyone in the country is comfortable with children being separated from their parents.” But, at least according to their statements (or lack thereof) it looks as though many of his constituents and friends are quite comfortable with children being torn from their parents for the simple act of seeking asylum.

There are four common responses from pro-family leaders on this crisis. White is emblematic of one that reasons that these kids deserve such treatment because their parents are criminals. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the person responsible for the care of these children, also endorses this approach.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), agrees. In a statement on the FRC website, Perkins argues that the “burden lies with their parents who knowingly put them in this position.” Perkins then published an opinion piece at Religion News Service advocating that children remain with their families when detained, while also supporting Trump’s zero-tolerance policy and criticizing the idea that migrant parents should be released with their children. Perkins’ version of compassion is to have migrant children detained with their parents.

Another approach comes by way of the current president of Focus on the Family: change the topic. In a statement on the separation of families, Jim Daly writes: “The current crisis is a tragedy, pure and simple,” before shifting the focus to all of the forces that separate families, including divorce, drug use, criminal activity, and of course abortion. There are many sad things in the world affecting families, so let’s talk about abortion.

Another pro-family response comes from former president of the FRC Gary Bauer, who’s been too busy tweeting about the supposed harassment campaigns against the children of ICE agents to acknowledge the nearly 3,000 migrant children sitting in cages away from their parents. This response focuses mainly on criticizing the “Far Left,” who are accused of hating the government and its authorities, and making sure to tweet about the importance of patriotism.

Yet another response comes from James Dobson, who, despite decades of political commentary, is choosing to sit this one out. Instead, it’s business as usual at Family Talk, his radio program, where Dobson has been busy hosting a three-part program on “Confronting Guilt in Motherhood” and, in another tone-deaf moment, tweeted a link to a blog post on the importance of a mother’s presence to her child.

So why the failure on the part of so many white evangelical leaders to speak up on this issue? From the institution of slavery to the decades-long practice of stealing Native American children and placing them in boarding schools, the United States has a long and tragic history of separating children from their parents. But unlike the vast majority of the pro-family movement, which is almost exclusively white and middle-class, these separations have largely affected people of color. The silence and blame that have animated the evangelical and pro-family response to this crisis raise the question of just which families these groups care about.