Iowa Christians struggle to square faith with fear over refugees

Story highlights

  • The attacks in Paris last week immediately rocked the Republican race
  • Some Iowans say they're not watching the plight of persecuted Syrians as Christians whose faith tells them to be compassionate

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)As Christians, they want to be compassionate. As Americans, they want to be safe.

That's the message from Iowa Republicans as they come to terms with the Syrian refugee crisis that has quickly dominated the presidential race. Nearly the entire Republican field has taken a hardline stance toward admitting any more Muslim refugees, raising the specter that Islamic militants could infiltrate the refugee population and therefore immigrate easily to the United States.
For conservatives on edge after the attacks on Paris, the rhetoric resonates.
    But at least half of the votes cast in next February's primary here will come from those who come from the evangelical tradition. And some here say they're not watching the plight of persecuted Syrians as Republican primary voters but as Christians whose faith tells them to be compassionate -- and that could mean accepting refugees who have nowhere else to turn.
    "I'm not trying to cast aspersions on Muslims in general, because I'm sure the vast majority of Muslims are good people just like the vast majority of Christians are," said Richard Tucker, sitting alone an hour before a major Iowa faith conference began Friday.
    "You can be very compassionate towards people, but to me, my first responsibility is to my family, my community," he said. "No matter how much compassion I may have for some other group, if I don't think I can allow that group into my community or near my family and be safe," then they can't be let in.
    The attacks in Paris last week immediately rocked the Republican race, and the entire field spent much of the week telling voters how tough they would be toward ISIS and the Syrian refugee population. Several GOP candidates said they would openly accept Christian refugees but that Muslims posed too great a risk.
    Late this week, several Republican presidential candidates raced even further to the right. Ben Carson compared some in the refugee population to "rabid dogs." And Donald Trump said he was open to the idea of a national registry of all Muslims in the United States.
    For Iowans jittery that a Paris-like attack could happen here at home, that language might be a political winner.
    "I really don't want to get blown up by them SOB's," said Carl Arson, a small farmer who came to Ted Cruz's town hall in Harlan, Iowa on Friday to decide between Cruz and Trump. Arson said he supported sending all Muslims currently in the U.S. out of the country. "I don't trust them. Isn't this a Christian nation? Am I wrong?"
    The refugee crisis has hung over all of Cruz's events for the past week as the Texas Republican tried to take the harshest anti-ISIS position. At the Harlan town hall, state Rep. Steve Holt said Cruz's advocacy was another reason why he supported Cruz for president.
    Holt told CNN that the U.S. should consider another Trump proposal this week -- closing down some mosques that foster Islamic extremism or anti-Americanism.
    "I'm a 20-year Marine, I'm a Republican. I'm not afraid of widows and orphans. I do fear for the safety of my country and the safety of my children," Holt said. "I'll tell you, the compassionate thing to do would've been for President Obama to have a policy that would not lead to what were dealing with right now."
    Other Iowans of faith struggled more openly with the balance. Michelle Steen, a 61-year-old greeter at the faith forum here, said she does want the Muslim refugees to eventually be sheltered by the West but that she understands the need for a short-term pause.
    Steen, who supports Carson, said she appreciated his analogy of airplane passengers securing their own oxygen mask during an emergency before helping their children or friends.
    "Let's get our country secure, and then we can help others," she said as evangelicals streamed into their seats. "It'd be better to wait and just be safe about it."
    A few feet away, Josh Byers, a 37-year-old pastor at Willowcreek Baptist Church in West Des Moines, said he too believed the U.S. put national security challenges before the dictums of his faith. He said he supported not allowing Syrian Muslims into the United States.
    But that doesn't mean the church can't forcefully back Syrians in need, helping to house the homeless and feed the hungry, even if they are not Christians.
    "The church's role is not to be the state. The state's role is not to be the church," Byers said. "It's very clear scripiturally that that's the case, and practically, it works out pretty well, too."