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The Memo: Religious right hits Trump on border crisis

The controversy over child separation at the southern border is prompting conservative Christian leaders to be more vocal in their criticisms of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE than ever before.

Some experts believe their dissent could build, eroding approval for Trump among a group that has been reliably in his corner up till now. But others caution that the depth and durability of the religious right’s support for the president has been underestimated before.

Recent hits on Trump have come from some surprising quarters, including Franklin Graham, an early supporter of the president and the son of the late Billy Graham. 

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Graham called the splitting up of children from their parents “disgraceful” and “terrible” in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week.

On Tuesday, another influential Christian leader published an op-ed in The New York Times that jabbed at the policy. Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, wrote: “We should execute justice, yes. But not with the kind of cruelty we’re reading about from the border with Mexico.”

A third blast came from the Faith and Freedom Coalition, also on Tuesday.

The organization’s founder and chairman, Ralph Reed, wrote that the separations were “heartbreaking and tragic” and “part of the larger tragedy of a broken immigration system that does not reflect our values or our faith.” Reed, however, put the onus on Congress to fix the situation.

Speaking to The Hill, Vander Plaats said: “We are living in a time when everyone believes it has to be either/or: You either have to be tough on illegal immigration or you have to let ‘em all in. The point of [The New York Times] piece was to say ... you can do justice but you can also have mercy at the same time.”

The Trump administration has been enveloped by a growing sense of self-inflicted crisis on the issue.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure MORE announced the beginning of a “zero tolerance” approach in April — meaning, in essence, that all adults suspected of trying to cross the border illegally would be prosecuted.

The policy makes no exceptions for people who seek entry to the United States accompanied by minors. The children cannot be held with adults in jail, so they are sent to separate detention camps.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 2,300 children were separated from their parents in this fashion between May 5 and June 9. The issue has drawn increasing media coverage, much of it focusing on the most emotional aspects of the story. The nonprofit group ProPublica, for example, has published an audio recording apparently of children weeping loudly, having been separated from their parents.

Deepening the political trouble for the White House, the policy has come under fire from a number of Republicans and even strong Trump supporters such as former White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciAnn Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Spicer: People at White House are 'burnt out' Scaramucci: John McCain, an inspiration for a day of unity MORE.

The administration has cycled through several different rationales to explain what is going on, sometimes describing the policy as a deterrent to illegal immigration but at other times denying such a policy even exists and blaming Democrats for not enacting broader immigration reform.

Diane Winston, a professor of media and religion at University of Southern California (USC), Annenberg, said that the separation issue had drawn fire from evangelicals for a simple reason: the importance of the family.

“Evangelicals are committed to family,” she said. “Family values are paramount in their world and so seeing the breakup of families is extremely distressing.”

But Winston also cautioned that it was important not to exaggerate what was going on. She saw no real chance of a large-scale breach between Trump and white Christian conservatives.

“If they did not feel 100 percent in Trump's camp, I don’t think they would even raise this issue,” she said. “This is loyal opposition telling him, ‘We love what you’re doing, we love what happened in Israel [where Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem], we love your domestic policies — but this is something we would like you to think about some more.’ ”

The extent of evangelical support for Trump has surprised some outside observers, given the colorful personal life of the thrice-married billionaire and other high-profile controversies, most notably the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he was heard boasting about grabbing women by the genitals.

Despite all of that, 80 percent of white evangelical or born-again Christians voted for Trump in the 2016 election, compared to 16 percent for his Democratic opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Gabbard considering 2020 run: report Claiming 'spousal privilege' to stonewall Congress MORE, according to exit polls.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll released in April showed white evangelical support of Trump rising to an all-time high. The organization’s polling had pegged such backing in the mid-60s around the time of the election, but found that it had risen to 75 percent in April.

Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, asserted that evangelicals struck a bargain of a kind with themselves when it comes to backing Trump.

“The line is some version of, ‘We know Trump has problems but he is doing things we want done,' ” he said.

He cited not just the U.S. Embassy in Israel's move to Jerusalem, but also judicial nominations, including Trump’s successful effort to put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

There are also, of course, those who simply agree with Trump.

Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa, suggested that his audience liked Trump’s hard-line stance on illegal immigration, believing that he recognizes the problems it has caused for some Americans.

Asked whether the separations issue was a major concern, Deace replied, “With my audience it’s not, no. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily agree with the way the policy is being carried out. But one of the reasons they voted for Trump is that they recognize he didn’t create this issue.”

Deace added that his listeners were “much more concerned that he is going to sign that amnesty bill in Congress and betray his campaign promises.”

Still, Vander Plaats cautioned that Trump does not have a blank slate from evangelicals — personally or politically.

“We counsel our base that we are called to pray for the president. We pray for them. We are also called on to cheer them on when they do right ... But we are also called to be the voice of accountability — the Nathan to David.”

Vander Plaats added, a little ruefully, of Trump: “I believe his poll numbers would rise if he would walk humbly.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.