Last week, a few days after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, A.R. Bernard became the first member of President Trump’s evangelical advisory board to resign. “It became obvious that there was a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration,” the pastor of New York City’s Christian Cultural Center wrote in a statement. He had been quietly backing away for months, he wrote. Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville seemed to be what it took to make Bernard’s decision official.
So far, he’s been the only one to step down since Trump took office. None of the other members have appeared to consider quitting over a “conflict in values,” despite the critics in and out of the church who have called on them to step down. While Trump’s advisers are largely standing unified behind him, the evangelical world is deeply split over the right way to approach politics. Are Christians better off trying to influence an imperfect president? Or should they disengage from a process that will never produce a leader who perfectly represents their worldview?
Tony Suarez, one of the advisory council members, said the pressure to quit has been intense. Over the last few days, he said, he’s gotten more than 1,000 messages via phone, text, and email calling him everything from “a hypocrite to a protector of neo-Nazism to supporting white supremacy.” Suarez, a pastor who serves as the executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, condemned the attacks in Charlottesville, calling “the racism and hate being spewed by the alt-right and white supremacists … an insult to Christianity and our country.” Many other members of the advisory council put out similar statements. “The message rebuking hate and white supremacy and the alt-right—I think the advisory board was very clear on where they stand,” he told me in an interview. “I don’t think there was any confusion in that message.”
Where there did seem to be lack of clarity, though, was in the president’s message on Charlottesville. Trump’s initial statement did not explicitly condemn neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups in Charlottesville, and he decried the violence “on many sides.” Later, he issued a statement directly condemning hate groups, saying that “racism is evil.” But he quickly reverted back to his original tone, lashing out at journalists and arguing that there were “some very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.
So Trump’s evangelical advisers set about doing one of their primary jobs: translating for the president. When ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked the White House for an official representative to speak about Charlottesville, the administration offered up Jerry Falwell Jr., the Liberty University president who has been one of Trump’s most loyal backers. Falwell blamed the media for politicizing Trump’s comments. “One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct. He says what’s in his heart, what he believes, and sometimes that gets him in trouble,” Falwell said. “But he does not have a racist bone in his body.”
In an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Texas pastor and evangelical advisory council member Robert Jeffress used some of the very same phrases. “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,” he said. Trump “was very honest in what he said. He refused to be politically correct. … There is not a racist bone in his body.”
“If there was ever a time that we need to give counsel and advice, it’s right now.”
Critics of the council see this as the problem: Evangelical leaders are willing to explain away anything Trump does, even when he creates controversy and potentially exacerbates painful situations. “I think a lot of his advisory council members right now are in the business of enabling,” said Noah Toly, a professor of politics and director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College, an evangelical school outside of Chicago. Along with a small group of colleagues, Toly spearheaded a letter from Wheaton faculty condemning the white supremacy on display in Charlottesville. “If the advisory council were perceived to exist in order to challenge the president on important issues, not just to send out a few tweets … I might think differently,” he told me. “But it seems to me, and I think a lot of other evangelicals, that the advisory council exists to legitimize the presidency in the eyes of the evangelical base.”
Suarez argued that much of the council’s work is invisible: When evangelical leaders talk with the president, they don’t make those conversations public, because that wouldn’t be appropriate. “I can tell you there have been legitimate, straight meetings where we delve into these issues,” he told me. “There is an open door from the Oval Office to be able to express praise, criticism, and concern to the president. And he receives it.” Suarez also confirmed that evangelical advisers were in touch with the White House as the situation in Charlottesville unfolded.
This is the purpose of the council, he said: to advise the president, even in times of crisis. “If I’m invited to a table … where I’m given the opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless, share my convictions, and share my heart, then I need to go,” he said. While journalists and evangelical critics pointed out that members of Trump’s business councils resigned in protest of his Charlottesville comments, Suarez said he didn’t understand why pastors would do the same. “Why would I abandon someone now? I wouldn’t do that to someone in my congregation,” he said. Business leaders answer to shareholders, but pastors have a calling to speak from a faith perspective. “If there was ever a time that we need to give counsel and advice,” he added, “it’s right now.”
“Whatever credibility we had, we are selling that now in order to achieve and retain power and influence.”
In an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid, Bernard said he quit because he had to consider the costs of being associated with the evangelical council. “It took me 40 years to build my credibility and my reputation, and that goes away in four or eight years, if it lasts that long,” he said. “I don’t think he’s racist. I think he’s ill-advised. … His vacillation … from one position to another simply indicates to me that he never established a set of core values that guides his thinking and a moral compass.” Bernard praised the members of the evangelical advisory council as “wonderful people … who love God [and] love country,” but “I have a problem with continuing to support anything that’s going to endorse this kind of behavior that made it difficult for me, as a black person in America, to experience the fullness of American life.” Technically, Bernard is not the first evangelical adviser to quit Trump’s council: Another member, the mega-church pastor James MacDonald, tweeted last week that he resigned last October “for clarity’s sake.”
Mark Burns, another black pastor on the council, disagreed with Bernard’s reasoning. “I believe that my support for … Donald Trump lies deeply in my desire to see our faith, the Christian faith, be the center of politics again,” he said during the interview with Reid. As long as evangelical leaders have “a seat at the table,” he said, “it is our spiritual obligation to be a voice of God to the ear of the president of the United States.” And, he added, “I believe God has called me to this.”
Because they’re always on television and occasionally posting selfies from the Oval Office, the members of the advisory council have become the assumed voice of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted to put Trump in office. In reality, evangelicals have extremely divided views on how to approach politics. “Whatever credibility we had, we are selling that now in order to achieve and retain power and influence, which is a bargain that isn’t worth it,” said Toly. “We have to be willing to call out evil wherever it happens, and not remain silent in order to retain influence on other issues. I don’t see a lot of that happening right now.”
Even those who are steadfastly standing by Trump, like Suarez, recognize the fractures this president has caused among Christians. “We need to rebuke the partisan politics that have come into the church, and remember that before we were ever donkeys and elephants, we belonged to the lamb,” he told me. “It’s done. He is our president for the next three years, or longer. That’s not changing. Let’s come together and bring healing to our nation, because the only hope for this world is the church.”