Engy Abdelkader is based at Rutgers University, where her teaching and research explores religion, race, and gender at the intersection of law, politics, and society. Abdelkader is also a fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
On his first day in office, President Biden rescinded the Muslim and African bans, his predecessor’s discriminatory immigration measures. Previously, during the 2016 presidential election cycle, then-candidate Trump promised (and delivered) a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering” the country.
Arguably, in the aftermath of the Trump Administration’s unbridled Islamophobia, the rescission of this signature law by America’s second Catholic president is an initial step toward Muslim-Christian healing. Still, this assessment may prove overly simplistic.
Contemplating Trump’s anti-Muslim policies, practices, and rhetoric in broader social, political, and racial context proves revealing. Indeed, institutionalized Islamophobia was merely one manifestation of the racism, xenophobia, and related intolerance that the last four years laid bare.
The Muslim Ban
One week following his inauguration on January 27, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order entitled, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The order, also known as the Muslim ban, explained that its objective was to protect Americans from immigrants who “bear hostile attitudes” toward the United States and the Constitution, who “place violent ideologies over American law,” and who “engage in acts of bigotry or hatred.” To that end, it immediately barred entry of immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—for 90 days.
Notably, the order repeatedly cited the 9/11 attacks in support of its purported objective in enhancing national security; however, none of those hijackers came from the countries enumerated in the Muslim ban. According to research from the Cato Institute, not a single person from the designated countries has killed anyone in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Still, at the order’s signing ceremony, President Trump explained that the measure was “establishing a new vetting measure to keep Islamic radical terrorists out.”
Such institutionalized discrimination created another precedent for the government to similarly mark other minority groups for official disfavor.
In the White House, President Trump persisted in exploiting divisions around religion. He consistently labeled Muslims in dehumanizing terms, specifically as suspicious and dangerous national security risks. A presidential tweet aptly encapsulated his hostility and lack of understanding of Islam by spreading a widely debunked myth that “a method hostile to Islam—shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood—should be used to deter future terrorism.”
The discriminatory laws, practices, and policies enacted by President Trump carry broader social, political, and economic ramifications. First, they reinforced misconceptions about Islam as an inherently violent religion. Second, they bred intolerance, fear, and hostility among the general population toward a marginalized minority faith community. Third, they signaled government approval of discrimination against Muslims—citizens and immigrants alike. Such institutionalized discrimination created another precedent for the government to similarly mark other minority groups for official disfavor.
In fact, what began as a Muslim ban eventually evolved into restrictive measures against African immigrants as well.
Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance
Significantly, Muslims are not the only victims of the Trump administration’s discriminatory policies, practices, and rhetoric.
While promising and delivering institutionalized Islamophobia, President Trump also employed racialized politics that dehumanized and debased Latinx and African immigrants, including Christian voters. For instance, he repeatedly used the word “animal” to describe those crossing the southern border and accused immigrants of committing crimes and being gang members. During a discussion about MS-13, a criminal gang that originated in California, President Trump said, “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
While promising and delivering institutionalized Islamophobia, President Trump also employed racialized politics that dehumanized and debased Latinx and African immigrants, including Christian voters.
Moreover, during immigration talks with lawmakers in the Oval Office, President Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries in a degrading manner, asking, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He then expressed a preference for increased immigration from European countries like Norway.
After launching his 2020 re-election campaign, President Trump continued to play on popular fears, racial anxieties, and other divisions. President Trump’s re-election campaign was responsible for thousands of Facebook ads that referenced an “invasion” when referring to immigrants at the southern border. Moreover, during a 2019 political rally, President Trump asked his audience how they would stop migrants from entering this country. When a supporter responded, “Shoot them,” the president grinned, nodded, and failed to offer any appropriate corrective.
For many in the Latinx community, the El Paso mass shooting targeting “Mexicans” a few months later was a natural progression from inflammatory speech to xenophobic violence. The El Paso attack left 22 dead, including six victims of Mexican heritage. The attacker had authored a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto that warned of an America overrun by Latino immigrants. Such xenophobia mirrors the president’s racialized perspective and politics.
Interestingly, the Christian faith identity of Black Protestants and Latino Catholics, for instance, did not serve as a protectant or repellant against Trump’s bigotry.
The Religious Right
Far from a monolith, a very specific segment of the American Christian population has consistently supported Trump: white evangelical Protestants. To better understand this group’s significance in contemporary political context, some background may prove useful.
The religious right emerged as a new Christian movement in the aftermath of the social, political, and racial upheaval of the 1960s. Perceiving a threat to traditional values from premarital relations, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography, many conservative Americans joined evangelical Protestant denominations. As some Americans embraced more conservative religious traditions, issues such as abortion and homosexuality symbolized a new culture war over which white evangelicals desired control. As such, traditional religious values and conservative politics became increasingly aligned and remains a mainstay in presidential politics.
As some Americans embraced more conservative religious traditions, issues such as abortion and homosexuality symbolized a new culture war over which white evangelicals desired control.
During both the 2016 and 2020 presidential election cycles, white evangelicals supported Trump by wide margins (81% and 75%, respectively). Comprising one in five members of the U.S. electorate, the group is credited with Trump’s 2016 ascension.
According to a 2016 PRRI survey, 70% of white evangelicals believed the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s. For many white evangelicals, the 1950s represent a golden era of traditional religious values when white men dominated both religion and politics. Significantly, PRRI found that Black Protestants, Latino Catholics, and religious minorities all believe that the nation has progressed since the 1950s—when the doctrine of “separate but equal” was still good law and religious minority rights languished. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s signature slogan—Make America Great Again—resonated with a particular demographic.
More recently, PRRI found most—57%—white evangelicals said immigrants represented a threat to America’s customs and values. In contrast, 63% of Latino Protestants and 67% of Black Protestants believe immigrants strengthen American society. Additionally, the majority of white evangelicals hold negative views about the country’s increasingly racial and ethnic diversity as reflected in U.S. census projections. Approximately 54% believe that a majority-nonwhite nation, as projected by 2045, will have a mostly negative effect on the country. This evidences the group’s racialized perspective.
More recently, PRRI found most—57%—white evangelicals said immigrants represented a threat to America’s customs and values.
Significantly, PRRI data also evidences white evangelical hostility towards religious pluralism. When asked to put themselves on a scale, where one end is the statement, “I would prefer the U.S. to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions,” and the other end is the statement, “I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith,” Americans are likelier to prefer religious diversity. In contrast, 60% of white evangelical Protestants mostly agree with the second statement, preferring a Christian nation.
Over the course of his administration, Trump rewarded white evangelicals handsomely for their strong support: moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, appointing Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and signing an anti-abortion declaration with 32 countries. The group, which consistently views Muslims in a negative light, overwhelmingly supported (76%) Trump's Muslim ban.
Prioritizing American Values
Groups often act pursuant to strategic self-interest. While the political values of white evangelicals undermine pluralism and racial equality, some Christian counterparts—such as Blacks and Latinos—hold distinct views. Similar to the racial, ethnic, religious, political, and ideological diversity within the American Muslim community, Christian compatriots are hardly a monolith. As such, despite differences, historically marginalized groups—African Americans, Asian Americans, Muslims, Latinos, Jewish Americans, Native American—have an opportunity to build a common platform with white anti-racist allies from which to advocate shared goals.
As the nation heals, prioritizing American values—such as equality, liberty, and multiculturalism—may prove key to our collective self-preservation and advancement.
Ultimately, the Trump administration’s policies, practices, and rhetoric damaged not merely Muslim (and minority) communities but our nation’s reputation abroad while creating fertile soil for extremist violence at home. As the nation heals, prioritizing American values—such as equality, liberty, and multiculturalism—may prove key to our collective self-preservation and advancement.