NEW YORK – One of President Donald Trump's most steadfast constituencies has been standing by him amid his defense of a white nationalist rally in Virginia, even as business leaders, artists and Republicans turn away.
Only one of Trump's evangelical advisers has quit the role, while presidential boards in other fields saw multiple defections before being dismantled. The Rev. A.R. Bernard, pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn and one of the most influential clergymen in New York, announced his decision Friday night, saying "there was a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration."
Trump's evangelical advisers have strongly condemned the bigotry behind the Charlottesville march by white nationalists and neo-Nazis over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But regarding Trump, they have offered either praise for his response or gentle critiques couched within complaints about how he has been treated by his critics and the media.
Like other presidents before him, Trump has turned to religious leaders for counsel and support. His faith advisers include pastors who had worked with his campaign, and now pray with him and consult with his staff on issues ranging from religious liberty in the U.S. to the persecution of Christian minority populations in the Middle East.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and an early backer of Trump, said the president had made a "bold truthful statement" about the demonstration. Falwell said the president's remarks were a clear repudiation of white supremacists, Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
Johnnie Moore, a public relations executive, faith adviser to the president and a spokesman for several other such evangelicals advisers, said, "The president is certainly guilty of being insensitive," but that the media and critics of the president have ignored his other comments rejecting white supremacy and anti-Semitism.
Jack Graham, a Texas pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, signaled he planned to stay on as an adviser. The role, Graham tweeted, "is to prayerfully advise & advance Christian issues to the Administration."
After the march last Saturday, in which neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and others scuffled with counter-protesters, a car driven by an alleged white nationalist plowed into a group of people, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
The president initially responded by blaming "many sides" for the violence. On Monday, he read a prepared statement denouncing bigotry. But in a combative news conference Tuesday, he said "there is blame on both sides" and "there were very fine people on both sides." Later, he doubled down, calling efforts to remove monuments to the Confederacy an attack on America's "history and culture."
Some of his Republican allies started to more openly complain. Trump dissolved two business councils this week after members began quitting, damaging his central campaign promise to be a business-savvy chief executive in the Oval Office. On Friday, the entire membership of the President's Committee On the Arts and Humanities resigned.
As the backlash built, evangelical author Michael Brown, who attended a recent Washington meeting of Christian leaders and White House aides, urged Trump to fulfill his campaign promise to be a "unifier." In Brown's post Thursday on stream.org, he showered the president with praise, calling Trump "tenacious" and "fearless," and saying, "You will never satisfy the secular media." But Brown said, "there are times to be a wrecking ball and times to be a statesman. Today, our nation needs you to be a statesman. Will you rise to the occasion?"
Trump won 80 percent of the white evangelical vote and has earned some of his highest approval ratings from the group throughout his tumultuous presidency.
Evangelicals have been thrilled by his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court and by the president's pledge to strengthen religious liberty protections. Conservative Christians who have long worked with political leaders say they have never before had such access to the White House.
At the same time, many of his evangelical advisers have been working to confront racism within their denominations. White evangelical support for Trump, and the response of evangelical leaders amid the fallout from the rally, has widened rifts between black and white Christians.
South Carolina pastor Mark Burns, one of Trump's most vocal Christian defenders, posted a video on the day of the march distancing Trump from the white supremacists who said they were rallying in the president's name. "David Duke and his Neo-Nazi Hate Groups don't represent us Americans that elected" Trump, Burns tweeted. He later criticized the media focus on the rally and said they should be looking instead at the murder rate in Chicago.