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President Donald Trump at Liberty University
President Donald Trump, backed by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, addresses the Class of 2017 at Liberty's 44th commencement. Liberty University photo

Trump puts evangelical advisers in a difficult spot

How should members of the presidential advisory board respond post-Charlottesville?

Some of President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisers think he could have responded better to the Aug. 12 violence in Charlottesville, Va., but say ultimately they don’t expect him to heal the nation’s racial divide.

Following Trump’s meandering response to the racially charged incident, at least one of his evangelical advisory board members resigned in protest. A.R. Bernard, pastor of New York City’s largest evangelical congregation, said in a statement the deepening conflict of values between him and the administration had become clear.

But most of Trump’s faith advisers say they still have great access to the president and want to work together on racial reconciliation and finding solutions to other justice issues.

“I think the morale is high only because people feel ultimately they will be heard,” Bishop Harry Jackson, a member of Trump’s faith advisory board, told me. “We need to unify and say, ‘This is what we want.’ I don’t feel like we’ve made that clear of a demand on power yet.”

Trump polarized many Christians during the 2016 election. Most evangelicals ended up voting for him and continue to show their support, but each new controversy increases the strain.

On Aug. 28, hundreds of left-leaning faith leaders, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, marched through the streets of the nation’s capital to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and condemn the president’s response to Charlottesville. They believe the church can help foster racial reconciliation but insist repentance is the first key step.

Jim Garlow, another member of Trump’s faith board and pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego, said white Americans will never fully understand how minorities feel in the United States, and it’s important for them to repent of known and unknown prejudices.

“The president could change his language and the hatred could still be there,” Garlow said. “The government does not have the capacity of what the church can do.”

Trump’s faith advisers schedule conference calls with the president every two weeks, but those meetings don’t always happen. Most board members don’t have direct access, instead sending messages to the president through his staff, but they often feel pressure to respond to Trump controversies.

“I refuse to be the Monday-morning quarterback for Mr. Trump,” Jackson told me. “He’s a big boy. He’s over 70 years old. He is who he is. But in a spiritual sense, he’s called on me to be a counsel; it’s up to him to decide how much of my counsel he is going to receive.”

In response to the backlash from Charlottesville, Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, reached out to Pastor Mike Hayes of Covenant Church in Dallas for recommendations of influential African-Americans willing to work with the Trump administration. Hayes said Kelly wants to establish a working group of diverse community leaders to help with racial reconciliation.

As more cities consider how to respond to racially charged protests and activists tearing down Confederate monuments, the Trump administration is going to need all the help it can get.

 — by Evan Wilt

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