If not after Charlottesville, then when? Why evangelicals must denounce Trump

Reuters

Donald Trump is unfit to be the President of the United States. This is as clear as day to many of us from left to right. High-profile conservatives from John McCain to David Frum to Bill Kristol have been banging the drum for some time.

This week, it has taken on an entirely new focus, though. Not content with escalating the volatile situation on the Korean peninsula, Trump spoke on three separate occasions about the dreadful events in Charlottesville.

Firstly, on Saturday, he made brief comments about the violence which followed the 'alt right' rally and counter demonstration. These remarks, wholly inadequate, were where he condemned violence 'on many sides'. The statement was welcomed on Nazi websites.

Then, on Monday, Trump made a more fulsome statement. Clearly pre-prepared, Trump was, for once, fairly disciplined in front of the media. He said, 'Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, continuing, 'the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans'.

Yet by Tuesday he had changed his tune again and in a wild press conference, he muddied the waters badly. 'You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I'll say that right now,' he opined. 'You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.'

He then went on to say that there were 'very fine people' on both sides.

This does not come in a vacuum. Former KKK leader David Duke has backed Trump repeatedly, alt-right upstart Richard Spencer shouted 'Hail Trump' at a meeting in Washington, while one of Trump's close advisers has ties to antisemitic groups.

The likes of Kristol sprung into action. 'To Donald Trump: 'You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart and let us have done with you. In the name of God go!', he tweeted, channelling Oliver Cromwell and Leo Amery. 

You'd have thought that this would be the final straw for the evangelical leaders vocally lending him their support too. They didn't find his remarks about grabbing other people's genitals too much. They didn't find his repulsive comments about Mexicans being rapists too much. They didn't even find it too much when he threatened a foundational tenet of the USA – religious liberty – by proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country.

Yet cling on they did. In fact, they went out and stumped for him. Now though, in the midst of his equivocation over condemning actual Nazis on the streets of the South, they have been offered the golden opportunity. They have, sadly, bottled it again.

There are dozens of members of Trump's evangelical advisory body. This group was arranged during the campaign to give a veneer of Christian credibility to a man who said he'd never asked for forgiveness and who couldn't name a Bible verse when asked.

Though many of them have tweeted general statements condemning racism and violence, not one has broken ranks and criticised the President himself.

Robert Jeffress sprang into action to go on television to defend Trump. 'There is an effort to do whatever is necessary to take this president down', claimed Jeffress, suggesting that the media was to blame, rather than Trump's equivocation.

Jerry Falwell Junior tweeted that he was 'proud' of Trump. 'Finally a leader in WH,' he said, 'Jobs returning, N Korea backing down, bold truthful stmt about #charlottesville tragedy.So proud of @realdonaldtrump.'

Franklin Graham, one of Trump's most steadfast and high profile defenders said, 'Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on @POTUS Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA.'

It is clear that many evangelical (and other conservative Christian) leaders simply could not support Hilary Clinton in 2016. Their commitment to certain policy positions means that they will never back a Democrat. In a plea I made to evangelicals prior to the election I wrote that, 'pulling your support from Trump is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. There are many reasons why evangelical leaders are deeply suspicious of Clinton, ranging from the legitimate to the conspiratorial, but what is clear is that by rescinding support for Trump, you are not backing Hillary.'

This remains true. To denounce Trump now would not mean becoming a Democrat. You could happily remain a pro-life Republican but recognise the immense potential for damage that Trump has for democratic norms.

The Anne Frank Centre, which fights antisemitism and other prejudice, has been tweeting a lot in the last few days. One which particularly caught my eye said, 'ANTISEMITIC FACT CHECK. @POTUS said: 'The night before they were protesting very quietly.' Reality: The chant was "Jews will not replace us."'

'Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism,' said the Orthodox Rabbinicial Association, in remarks directly addressed to Trump.

This is the problem. Trump has obfuscated and misrepresented the actions of actual genuine neo-Nazis. It isn't just Jewish people who are terrified of that (although the worshippers at Charlottesville Synagogue can tell you about how it feels to be surrounded by armed Nazis).

Can't Trump's evangelical backers do any better? To tweet generic denouncements of racism while standing by their man is a choice they're making and it is the wrong choice. It is a choice over which history will not be kind to them.

It isn't too late to pull the support for Trump, even now. But if his prevarication in the face of an actual Nazi march in the heart of the old South isn't enough to make them do it, when, oh when, will they? I'm not holding my breath.

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy

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