After a white supremacist rally resulted in the death of a counter-protester, President Donald Trump has been criticized from religious leaders of a variety of political leanings, but has largely retained the support of white evangelicals, who overwhelmingly voted for him in the 2016 election.
The Saturday, August 12 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia saw the coalescence of assorted white nationalist groups, from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis to disgruntled unaffiliated individuals, into an organized coalition with a shared goal. The “Unite the Right” rally brought together a group of approximately 500 to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park.
The white supremacist protesters were met by over 1,000 counter-protesters, including clergy from a variety of faith traditions. A line of clergy members chanted “love has already won” and sang “This Little Light of Mine” in response to protesters’ chants of “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us.” After fights continued to escalate between the two groups, law enforcement declared an unlawful assembly—a full 40 minutes before the event was officially slated to begin.
Two hours later, after some groups had begun to disperse, a rally participant named James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.
Politicians were quick to condemn Fields, Jr. and the broader Unite the Right rally as a movement fueled by “vile bigotry” that has “no place in civil society.” In his first public response to the weekend’s events, however, Donald Trump took a more equivocating stance, pointing to violence “on many sides.”
“I think there is blame on both sides. You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Trump said in a press conference Tuesday. “Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”
Trump added that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the clash.
Religious leaders of a variety of political leanings were quick to critique the president’s stance. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Ivanka Trump’s rabbi, wrote to his congregation that he was “deeply troubled by the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered in response to this act of violence.”
The Rabbinical Council of America similarly wrote that Trump’s “failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership.”
In a joint letter, a coalition of African-American clergy denounced both the violence of the Unite the Right rally and President Trump’s subsequent statements to the press.
“Appallingly, the President’s support for white supremacists has emboldened them and put the lives of African Americans, other people of color, our Jewish sisters and brothers and all people of faith who oppose their hateful agenda in danger,” the open letter read. “No, Mr. President. There are not many sides. There is only one wrong side, and we now know you stand firmly and defiantly with those who are on it.”
Representatives from humanist, Sikh, Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, and Christian faith communities roundly condemned white supremacist violence. Many also specifically called out the president for failing to unambiguously denounce Unite the Right participants.
Christian evangelist Beth Moore, who came under fire in October for vocally opposing Donald Trump on social media, wrote Saturday that “we cannot renounce what we will not name. It’s called White Supremacy. And it is from hell. Call it. Condemn it.”
Moore added, “Dear God, what does it take??!?”
Despite conservative Christian voices like Beth Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore critiquing Trump, many white evangelical Christians—81 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump in November—have doubled down on their support of the president.
Franklin Graham, son of Reverend Billy Graham, wrote last Sunday that criticisms of Trump are born out of “evil in people’s hearts.” “I denounce bigotry and racism of every form, be it black, white or any other,” Graham said on his Facebook page. “My prayer is that our nation will come together.”
“There is an effort to do whatever is necessary to take this president down,” Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s evangelical advisers, told CBN. Jeffress described Trump as a “very honest” person who “refuses to be political,” Christianity Today reported.
Meanwhile, as a number of CEOs resigned from Trump’s business advisory councils, only one member of the president’s evangelical advisory council has stepped down. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University and a member of Trump’s evangelical council, praised Trump for his “bold truthful” statement, adding, “So proud.”
Neo-Nazi news site The Daily Stormer also celebrated Trump’s press conference performance. “No condemnation at all,” the publication wrote. “When asked to condemn, [Trump] just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Counter-protester clergy link arms at Unite the Right rally. Photo by Anthony Crider, Flickr Creative Commons.