As President Donald Trump struggles to manage the firestorm of criticism over his controversial remarks on white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, conservative faith leaders are sticking by his side — although his recent comments defending Confederate statues may be testing some of them.
The Trump administration has been caught in a whirlwind of negative press this week after the president initially failed to condemn the white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville on Saturday, saying the ensuing violence that left one woman dead was the fault of “many sides” (the man charged with mowing down the woman and other protesters is alleged to be a white supremacist). The president eventually condemned Nazi sympathizers by name after mounting political pressure, only to ignite a media frenzy a day later by telling reporters that some of those who protested with white nationalists were “very fine people” who wanted to protect an “important” statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
“Regarding any calls to resign from the advisory council, I’m not going to do that. I think that we have the heart of pastors. We have a pastoral heart. We don’t walk away in times of trouble. I believe that’s why we were called to our job.”
The press conference resulted in an avalanche of criticisms from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) both denouncing his words as insufficient (Trump has since attacked Graham on Twitter). Others also began to distance themselves from the president: As white supremacists openly celebrated the president’s remarks, CEOs began to resign from Trump’s advisory council on manufacturing, culminating in Trump simply dissolving it, along with his Strategy and Policy Forum (but not before blasting some who left on Twitter).
With pressure mounting, some evangelical observers began to wonder if Trump’s band of faith advisers would also try and distance themselves from the president, especially since clergy members were among those who stood against racists in Charlottesville. While Trump does not currently have a formal faith council as he did during his campaign for president, many of those who advised him during his rise to power continue to meet with the White House, and could hypothetically renounce their ties to the president.
But as of Thursday morning, none of Trump’s religious counselors appear to have cut ties with the president or even renounced his remarks. Instead, most have condemned white supremacy while also publicly defending the president, with many saying his words are being misconstrued — although Trump’s latest series of tweets regarding statues may be testing some.
“Regarding any calls to resign from the advisory council, I’m not going to do that,” Rev. Tony Suarez, a Latino evangelical leader and an original member of Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board during the campaign, told ThinkProgress on Thursday. “I think that we have the heart of pastors. We have a pastoral heart. We don’t walk away in times of trouble. I believe that’s why we were called to our job.”
Suarez, who endorsed Trump shortly before Election Day in 2016, has issued statements in the aftermath of the tragedy condemning racism, a sentiment he reiterated to ThinkProgress. But he said the president’s comments about “very fine people” have also been misunderstood.
“I do not believe he was speaking of people giving a Nazi salute or giving racist chants,” Suarez, who is also an advocate for immigration reform, said. “I believe he was speaking of a few who sincerely would not like to see a monument removed, and were not participating in racist activities.”
Shortly after Trump issued a series of tweets in support of Confederate statues Thursday morning, however, Suarez contacted ThinkProgress to clarify his opposition to protesters who rallied to defend the monument in Charlottesville.
“I personally do not agree with their attendance or opinion,” he said. Suarez would not confirm whether Trump’s tweets instigated his clarification.
Meanwhile, other religious Trump supporters also doubled down on their role as advisors. The former vice president of Liberty University, Rev. Johnnie Moore, tweeted out several condemnations of racism before making clear that he intends to remain an active participant in efforts to advise the president.
Moore later told ABC that he believes “the way some in the media and the administration as well as other politicians and also activists — Republican and Democrat, liberals and conservatives — have handled the Charlottesville incident has at times been unhelpful, too emotional and insensitive.”
Others have taken even stronger supportive stances. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty, called Trump’s words “bold” and “truthful” on Twitter.
Another faith adviser, televangelist Rev. James Robison, posted a video in which he delivers a prayer that appears to side with those who want to preserve Confederate statues. A little over a minute into his orison, Robison asks, “Are we going to rip Amazing Grace out of every hymnbook, because [author] John Newton was a slave trader?” (Newton was, in fact, a slave trader with a complicated history, but the hymn is often associated with his renunciation of this past later in his life.)
Pastor Mark Burns, a preacher affiliated with the prosperity gospel who spoke at Trump rallies and delivered arguably the most partisan prayer at a party convention in history, has published several tweets and Periscope videos insisting that supporting the president’s “many sides” remark is “not defending” white supremacists but rather the First Amendment.
Robert Jeffress — who made waves last week by making the highly disputed claim that God has given Trump the authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — told the Christian Broadcasting Network that Trump “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” and that the uproar over his press conference is “just more a style issue.”
“There is an effort to do whatever is necessary to take this president down,” he said, according to Right Wing Watch, “and they have painted—the media has painted, the liberals have painted—a false narrative that the president is a racist and any time he tries to break out of that box, liberals aren’t going to allow him to do it. And so, I think the reason President Trump was elected was he was very honest in what he said, he refused to be politically correct; I think he’s right to denounce racism in all its forms. I know the president, you know the president, there is not a racist bone in his body.”
Franklin Graham also expressed passionate support for the president on Sunday in a Facebook post, and appeared to imply that blame for the violence in Virginia should rest on local politicians.
“Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA. That’s absurd,” he said. “What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions? How about the city politicians who issued the permit for the lawful demonstration to defend the statue? And why didn’t the mayor or the governor see that a powder keg was about to explode and stop it before it got started?”