Dozens of African American pastors gathered behind closed doors with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump at his office in New York City on Monday. The Trump campaign originally told press the pastors were going to endorse him, despite the fact that they had never promised to do so, which organizers chalked up to a “miscommunication.”
Following the meeting, Pastor Mark Burns from South Carolina told reporters that while he identifies as a “strong supporter” of Trump’s, he wasn’t yet ready to endorse. “You can’t ask to get married on the first date,” he said. “But I see ingenuity, I see creativity…and I see stones. He’s a heck of a leader, and we need a strong leader in this time.” When asked about many racially-charged incidents linked to Trump and his supporters that have happened since he launched his bid for president earlier this year, Burns answered: “Mr. Trump is not no racist. He’s probably the most least racist person there is. But he’s got to tone down certain languages that can easily be interpreted as racial slurs.”
Kenyatta Gilbert, an associate professor at Howard University’s Divinity School, was one of more than 100 black faith leaders from across the country who signed an open letter in Ebony magazine protesting their brethren for gathering with Trump. He told ThinkProgress he usually doesn’t get involved in political petitions, but feels Trump is too dangerous to ignore.
“Trump is a metaphor for me of a larger reality,” Gilbert said. “He wouldn’t have gained as much traction in American society if there were not many persons who think as he does, who believe in accruing prestige and power at the expense of the poor. We must pay attention to these individuals, because people who are operating their lives on false notions tend to do destructive things. We will never know the full extent of the collateral damage of [Trump’s] words.”
Noting Trump’s habit of using “overtly divisive and racist language,” the letter signed by Gilbert and others highlights the recent beating of a Black Lives Matter activist at a Trump rally in Alabama that the candidate argued was justified. The letter also notes the harm caused by Trump spreading inaccurate statistics about race and crime, as well as his infamous comments about refugees, Latino immigrants, and Muslim Americans.
“Trump’s racially inaccurate, insensitive and incendiary rhetoric should give those charged with the care of the spirits and souls of Black people great pause,” the letter reads. “Surely, we can agree that this kind of unloving and violent language does not reflect the politics of the Christ we profess?”
The letter directly takes to task the high-profile black leaders who attended the meeting at Trump Tower on Monday, telling them: “We are concerned that your choice to meet with Mr. Trump, particularly in such a visible way, will not only de-radicalize the Black prophetic political tradition, but will also give Trump the appearance of legitimacy among those who follow your leadership and respect your position as clergy.”
Gilbert characterized the pastors attending the closed-door meeting — many of whom are gospel artists, black megachurch personalities, and televangelists — as “prosperity preachers” who teach that faith and positive thinking will lead to material wealth.
“That was the red flag for many,” said Gilbert. “The Trump campaign wants to reach black constituents through religion and worship. It would not surprise me if they made financial commitments to these pastors, who have a very self-centered, self-serving theology.”
The letter goes so far as to worry that the integrity of the Black church will be “ruined because it is primarily concerned with creating alliances with powerful people who care more about buying votes than they do securing material equity.”
Yet many of the pastors whose names were included in ads promoting the Trump meeting say they never agreed to be a part of it.
The Los Angeles-based gospel singer, megachurch pastor and televangelist Bishop Clarence E. McClendon protested on Facebook that his name was used to promote the event despite the fact he declined the invitation. Senior Pastor Corletta Vaughn, whose name was also printed on the event flyer, had even harsher words.
“I do not support nor will endorse Donald Trump,” Vaughn added in another post.
Gilbert hopes the public outcry surrounding the Trump meeting changes the minds of the pastors who truly had intended to endorse the candidate.
“Pastors tend to move in a way their constituents demand,” he told ThinkProgress. “And what Trump is pushing, I don’t think it’s just. I don’t think it’s right. We live in a hyper-capitalist society that punishes the poor, either through exclusion or domination. And the most marginalized communities tend to be black and brown. But I still have hope in humanity, even though our society seems to be headed toward a cliff.”
Emily Atkin contributed reporting to this article.