President Trump’s belated and halfhearted denunciation of the hate groups that marched in Charlottesville, Va., has cost him the support of numerous business leaders and fellow Republicans and prompted at least a half-dozen nonprofit organizations to cancel planned fundraising events at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
But Trump’s religious advisers, who might be expected to offer moral guidance, have been almost entirely silent. None of the 25 members of his “Evangelical Advisory Board” has resigned in protest or even offered public criticism of his Charlottesvile comments.
The evangelicals’ failure to take a stronger stand has exposed them to some withering rebukes. A tweet from Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, that “corporate America has a greater moral compass” was retweeted nearly 50,000 times.
Such criticism has put Trump’s evangelical advisers on the defensive.
“We believe it would be immoral to resign,” says Johnnie Moore, a lay evangelical leader who has advised public figures on outreach to Christian communities. “As faith leaders, we have been given an opportunity to speak directly to various members of the administration, to provide not just policy counsel but personal counsel. We’re personally involved in the lives of all these people, praying for all these people, and answering their questions.”
In fairness, comparing the responses to Trump from business and religious leaders may obscure some key differences between the two groups. Trump’s evangelical advisers were with him through much of his presidential campaign and supported him politically. Few of the business leaders who advised Trump had those ties, so it may have been easier to break with him.
Business and religious leaders may also see their responsibilities differently. Corporate officers are especially sensitive to public pressure, because they have to worry about alienating their customers or angering their stockholders. The haste with which many U.S. corporations respond to consumer boycotts is an indication of their sensitivity to public sensibilities.
Religious leaders, meanwhile, may be more likely to see their role in private terms.
“Most evangelical leaders, including those who advise the White House, have been focused on ministry in recent days,” says Moore. “Politics has been the last thing on our brain. We’ve been reaching out, doing what the Bible calls us to do as ambassadors of reconciliation, reaching across the aisle, [and] reaching out to other ministers.”
Many conservative evangelicals, however, did not hesitate to criticize Barack Obama or Bill Clinton when they objected to their policies or felt their presidencies were somehow tainted, so the reluctance of Trump’s advisers to address his comments has been noteworthy. Some have had nothing at all to say about either the Charlottesville rally or Trump’s response to it, while several others rushed to the president’s defense.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, praised the president for his “bold truthful statement” about Charlottesville. Mark Burns, pastor of Harvest Praise and Worship Center in South Carolina, retweeted a link to a television interview in which he declared his support for Trump and criticized the counterprotesters. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, blamed the news media for misrepresenting Trump’s comments.
Other members of the president’s advisory board limited their critical comments to the neo-Nazis and other racists in Charlottesville. Ronnie Floyd, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a statement saying that “white nationalism and white supremacism are anathema to the teachings of Christ. … As Christians, we do not tolerate or condone these protests.”
Moore, who has served as an informal spokesman for the White House evangelical advisory group, has been equally forceful. “I totally abhor white nationalism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and racism in all forms,” he told NPR.
Such comments go well beyond the president’s assertion that there were “many sides” responsible for the violence in Charlottesville and that the torch-carrying marchers included some “very fine people,” but the evangelical leaders have been reluctant to challenge Trump directly.
“I certainly believe the president was insensitive in his comments,” Moore says, but he would go no further, and no other member of the advisory board even went that far.
An original member of Trump’s evangelical advisory body, James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in suburban Chicago, resigned from the group last October, and he has been outspoken about the Charlottesville rally and Trump’s comments on it.
Preaching about the events last Sunday, MacDonald said he didn’t want “to call people out by name,” but he left no doubt he was referring to Trump. “The greater your influence,” he wrote in a Facebook post, “the greater your complicity if you don’t call the Charlottesville attack what it really was: a heinous act of domestic terrorism entirely rooted in racial hatred.”
“It’s the height of hypocrisy,” MacDonald told his parishioners, “to demand that people use the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ and then turn around and refuse to use similarly candid terms when referring to racial hate crimes.”