For many religious leaders, the language and actions of President Donald Trump attack the moral principles upon which their faith is built. Last week, following the events of Charlottesville and the controversial White House response, those concerns were heightened.
Today’s Ministers March for Justice event, organized by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, was planned prior to the events of Charlottesville to express concern about the administration’s positions on many fronts. Rev. Sharpton said, as reported in the Washington Post, “We want to convene ministers from all faiths to make a moral statement that no matter what party is in office, there are certain moral things that should be nonnegotiable. That is voting rights, health care, criminal justice reform and economic justice…It’s fair to say that we are doing this march because the basic tenants of Dr. King’s dream are at risk now by the policies being promoted by this administration. Trump has kept the bust of Dr. King in his office, but what about the dream of Dr. King?”
The president’s ambivalent response to Charlottesville, which wavered between a low-energy condemnation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and a representation of “both sides” as equally complicit in the violence, raised the urgency for some religious leaders. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said to the Washington Post that “Jews marched 5,000 years ago out of Egypt; they marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. 54 years ago and would be marching Monday against the Trump administration’s policies…We Jews will march for 5,000 more years if that’s what it takes to make sure that all people experience compassion and justice and equality. We know that it’s our jobs as Jews to always show up and beat back the forces of white supremacy, racism and hate of all forms.”
For many Jewish leaders, Charlottesville was a turning point that brought them to more public action than they had been prepared to take just days earlier. Last week, members of four organizations representing 4,000 rabbis from the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements indicated that they would boycott a traditional presidential conference call to take place during the Jewish “high holidays.” In a statement announcing their intentions, they sharply criticized President Trump.
The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.
The rabbis noted that while their colleagues who served Charlottesville congregations were directly threatened by alt-right protesters, the president remained silent.
These actions contrasted generally positive response the president received from his Evangelical supporters. According to the Washington Post, “Only one of Trump’s evangelical advisers has quit the role…The Rev. A.R. Bernard, pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn…announced his decision Friday night, saying ‘there was a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration.’” While other members of his Evangelical council did condemn the white nationalists for their bigotry, they were ready to excuse the president for his response.
That so many rabbis were willing to publicly confront a sitting president is surprising and an indication of their deep concern over Charlottesville. The conference call boycott was announced just days after they were counseled to remain silent and avoid public protest. In emails obtained by the Forward, David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, urged caution:
I suspect that few of us could call for the dismissal of these presidential appointees without generating an unacceptable backlash that would make it harder for us to do other important work…I would caution you to consult closely with…many segments of your community to determine whether a local consensus exists on this matter before proceeding. Obviously, we have entered an extraordinarily challenging community relations period that will require not only our heightened activism, but also political nuance.
But, as Rabbi Pesner told the N.Y. Times, “Charlottesville created a new reality…there is a lot of anger out there.”
For many Jewish leaders, concern over the president’s words and tone have become so great that they no longer can remain silent. How deeply this will resonate in other segments of the American Religious Community remains to be seen, as does the president’s response.—Martin Levine