Conservative evangelicals have been widely criticized for their support of President Donald Trump. Yet, many evangelical leaders have not been afraid to speak out against some actions Trump and his administration have taken since winning the 2016 election.
As the Public Religion Research Institute found in its recent annual American Values Survey, about 42 percent of white evangelicals say they are only "weak" supporters of president Donald Trump and only three in 10 white evangelicals say there is nothing Trump can do to lose their support.
This suggests that a majority of white evangelicals still have some hesitation to claim full-throated support for the president. The Christian Post recently looked at "7 Trump Accomplishments That Evangelicals Like." Now, let's take a look at seven Trump actions that have raised concern among evangelicals.
1. Charlottesville response
Trump was criticized by many Americans in August for his response to the Unite the Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that saw at least one counter-demonstrator killed in a vehicle ramming attack carried out by a man linked to a white supremacist organization.
Many felt that Trump's original statement on the Charlottesville violence did not do enough to specifically call out the ideology of white supremacists and white nationalists. Although Trump later condemned racist ideologies and white supremacy, he would again stir the pot, stating in an exchange with reporters in New York City that there were "very fine people" on "both sides" in Charlottesville and there were "two sides to the story."
A coalition of evangelical leaders that included Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Tony Evans, and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, signed a statement calling on Trump to directly condemn the alt-right movement.
"We believe it is important for this movement to be addressed, for at its core it is a white identity movement and the majority of its members are white nationalists or white supremacists," the letter states. "This movement gained public prominence during your candidacy for President of the United States. Supporters of the movement have claimed that you share their vision for our country. These same supporters have sought to use the political and cultural concerns of people of goodwill for their prejudiced political agendas. It concerned many of us when three people associated with the alt-right movement were given jobs in the White House."
In a blog post, Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, criticized the president for failing to show "moral clarity" in his response to Charlottesville.
"Today, President Trump addressed the nation in a press conference in which he said that the white supremacist protestors were 'very fine people,'" Burk posted in an update on Aug. 15. "His full remarks were more than disappointing. They were morally bankrupt and completely unacceptable. People who protest while chanting Nazi slogans are not 'very fine people.'"
The Christian Post editors also posted an editorial calling for Trump to condemn white supremacy.
2. Deportation of Christians
Trump also received criticism from evangelicals when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents began detaining and threatening with deportation hundreds of Christian immigrants.
The U.S. government detained not only Christians who crossed the border from Mexico but also began detaining Christian refugees from places where the level of persecution is high, such as Iraq and Indonesia.
In July, it was reported that members of Trump's informal evangelical advisory council directly expressed their concern when it was reported that the Trump administration was going to deport 100 Iraqi Christians back to a nation that has seen its Christian population dwindle to near extinction because of persecution in the last 15 years.
A couple of evangelical leaders involved in a briefing of about 30 faith leaders with White House staffers in July told The Christian Post that they sent legal memos to the administration voicing their concern about the issue.
"We were all involved and I was there in that moment and yes, we reached an agreement that was what we were doing," former Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd, the pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, told CP.
Johnnie Moore, a religious freedom advocate and evangelical communications executive, told CP that the "memos were sound legal arguments, rooted in genocide declarations passed by both houses of Congress to show a legal justification for treating these particular individuals differently."
Earlier this year, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, expressed concern with the high amount of law-abiding Latino immigrants being targeted by the Trump administration for deportation, including some Christian pastors, even though Trump promised to target criminals for deportation.
"We are looking at, for example, a mom whose kids were born here and whose kids don't even speak Spanish. The mom who came here legally with a visa and the visa expired and she never got a deportation order was deported," Rodriguez said at the time. "These kind of egregious stories are the stories taking place. That is why I oppose it. I really want our president to fulfill his entire promise."
3. Rescinding DACA/DAPA
Evangelical leaders spoke out against Trump after he ended programs that offered immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children with deferred action from deportation and also offered deferred deportation to parents of lawfully-born American citizens.
In June, the Trump administration rescinded a 2014 Obama-era memoranda that created the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program.
"Today, we received the unfortunate news that DHS Secretary John Kelly, after consulting Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has rescinded the Obama-era memoranda known as DAPA, which provided protection from deportation for parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents," NHCLC's Samuel Rodriguez said in a statement at the time. "While DREAMers remain protected under DACA, it is of little comfort to children whose parents are now at risk of being deported from this country."
Just days before the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September, a number of evangelical leaders signed a letter calling on Trump to save the DACA program.
Signatories of that letter included Rodriguez, leading Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore and National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson.
"We carry particular concern for the future of these dreamers because they have much to offer America. They were brought here without their consent, and in most cases the U.S. is the only home they have known," the letter to Trump reads. "We know that these young people who stepped forward in good faith are not threats to America. By enrolling in DACA, they already have submitted to screening for criminal activity and potential threats to national security."
4. 'Nothing-burger' Religious freedom order
President Trump's May executive order promoting free speech and religious freedom was widely supported by many evangelical and social conservative leaders, and was included on CP's list of "7 Trump Accomplishments That Evangelicals Like." Some conservatives, however, were critical of the order.
Considering that one of Trump's major campaign promises to evangelicals was to abolish or "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prevents churches and nonprofits from engaging in political campaigning, some conservatives expressed skepticism after Trump signed the executive order, considering that it did not (nor could it) abolish the congressionally passed Johnson Amendment. Last week, Congress failed to repeal the Johnson Amendment in its tax bill.
Critics at the time also voiced concern that the order didn't even provide concrete religious exemptions for religious organizations to an Obamacare contraception mandate and only called on the Department of Health and Human Services to "consider" providing such an exemption.
In a tweet, National Review columnist David French referred to the order as a "nothing-burger of a religious liberty EO."
In an analysis, Gregory Baylor, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom law firm, stated that the order left Trump's campaign promises on religious liberty "unfulfilled."
Even the American Civil Liberties Union considered the signing of the executive order at the White House on the National Day of Prayer as nothing more than a photo opportunity for evangelical leaders across the country gathered at Rose Garden.
It should be noted that Trump's executive order preceded concrete actions to protect religious freedom, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions' religious freedom guidance and the move to grant religious exemptions to the Obamacare mandate in October.
5. Appointment of Scaramucci
After former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci went on a profanity-laced tirade in a publicized conversation with a reporter in July, one prominent evangelical leader called on Trump to fire "the Mooch."
Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Iowa-based social conservative advocacy group The Family Leader, took to his organization's website to voice his concern over Scaramucci and told Trump to wash his mouth out with soap.
"Mr. President, it is time to look in the mirror, accept responsibility, apologize to the American people, and declare an end to this behavior immediately," Vander Plaats wrote. "While what I'm urging may not be the 'Trump' brand, it is the brand of a leader. We need a leader. You must lead!"
Vander Plaats called on Trump to strip Scaramucci's credentials and "escort him personally off the White House grounds.
Scaramucci was ousted from the White House after 10 days.
6. Nominating Rex Tillerson
Some social conservative and evangelical activists, such as Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, were wary when it was announced last December that Trump would nominate former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state.
Perkins had raised an alarm about Tillerson's past with the Boy Scouts of America and his involvement in the decision to allow gay troop leaders.
"Now, after two terms of exporting radical social policy, Americans could finally see the light at the end of the Obama administration tunnel. To hear that Donald Trump may be appointing a man who not only led the charge to open the Boy Scouts to gay troop leaders but whose company directly gives to Planned Parenthood is upsetting at best," Perkins wrote. "FRC knows Tillerson all too well, having worked for years to put the brakes on his reckless agenda for a scouting organization that was already dealing with staggering numbers of sexual abuse cases."
"Unfortunately, the BSA, under Tillerson, ultimately caved to the pressure of the far-Left, irreparably splitting the Scouts and destroying a proud and honorable American tradition. Under his chairmanship, ExxonMobil's score on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate 'Equality' Index has also skyrocketed to 87 percent," Perkins continued. "Still, Trump calls Rex a 'world class player and dealmaker,' but if these are the kinds of deals Tillerson makes — sending dollars to an abortion business that's just been referred for criminal prosecution and risking the well-being of young boys under his charge in an attempt to placate radical homosexual activists — then who knows what sort of 'diplomacy' he would champion at DOS?"
7. Sessions' criminal sentencing memo
In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to federal prosecutors that, critics say, rolled back some positive Obama-era criminal justice reforms.
The Obama policies instructed prosecutors to avoid charging non-violent drug offenders with crimes that have a mandatory minimum sentence, so long as the offender met certain criteria.
The Sessions memo instructed prosecutors to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense."
Pat Nolan, the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation's Center for Criminal Justice Reform who formerly served with Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship, told CP in May that he thought Sessions' memo was a bit "misguided."
"I admire [Sessions] a lot and I have worked with him on several pieces of legislation that are very good. But in this case, I think it's misguided," Nolan said. "It will discourage efforts that prosecutors have been doing successfully in recent years to get the low-level people into treatment. It is proven effective and prison is proven ineffective."
About a month after Sessions issued the memo, evangelical leaders signed the "Justice Declaration" at a press conference in Washington D.C.
The declaration, which urged Christians to unite in response to the nation's "misguided" crime policies, was organized by groups such as Prison Fellowship, the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
At the press conference the leaders were asked about Session's memo and mandatory minimums.
"We do not believe in a system that has mandatory sentencing," Prison Fellowship President James Ackerman said. "We believe it removes from the judge the ability to do her or his job, which is to judge and consider the person in front of them — whether the person has repented for what they have done or whether they have taken steps to put themselves on the right path — and give them a sentence that is proportionate that the judge believes will ... lead that person to behavior that is restorative and positive for the community."
"So we do not support mandatory sentences and we think they are a big mistake," he asserted, later adding that Prison Fellowship supports sentencing guidelines, just not mandatory sentences.