Religious leaders react to the violence in Charlottesville

Some religious leaders criticized President Trump's initial response denouncing hatred and violence 'on many sides,' while a few conservative evangelicals rushed to defend the president.

A makeshift memorial of flowers and a photo of victim Heather Heyer sits in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 13, 2017. Heyer died when a car rammed into a group of people who were protesting the presence of white supremacists who had gathered in the city for a rally. AP Photo/Steve Helber

(RNS) — After three people were killed and dozens injured in Charlottesville, Va., amid what is believed to be the largest white nationalist rally in a decade, religious leaders condemned the Unite the Right march and the racism and anti-Semitism behind it.

Among them were a number of President Trump’s evangelical Christian advisers, such as Johnnie Moore, who has acted as the group’s unofficial spokesperson.

“EVERY evangelical I know condemns white nationalism & white supremacism,” Moore tweeted after the Saturday (Aug. 12) rally. “The Christian church is the most diverse movement in the world.”

He followed up with comments to CNN and a series of tweets warning others not to try to score political points or to make 30 marchers look like 30,000 and “dignify bigotry by giving them more attention than they deserve.” Several hundred people took part in marches lit by tiki torches on Friday night and marked by fatal violence Saturday in Charlottesville, when a man reportedly rammed his car into a crowd.

Some religious leaders also criticized Trump’s initial response denouncing hatred and violence “on many sides,” as a false moral equivalence, while a few conservative evangelicals rushed to defend the president.

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In a speech Monday, the president finally called out the groups involved in the rally, saying, “Racism is evil.

“And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” he continued.

That same day, the group Christian Ethicists Without Borders released a statement on white supremacy and racism, signed by more than 180 ethicists, that avowed: ” . . . we stand in resolute agreement in firmly condemning racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim, neo-Nazi ideology as a sin against God that divides the human family created in God’s image.”

Here are other responses to the events of the weekend from leaders spanning the religious spectrum.

Mike Huckabee, former Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas

“‘White supremacy’ crap is worst kind of racism-it’s EVIL and perversion of God’s truth to ever think our Creator values some above others,” Mike Huckabee tweeted.

He also took to Twitter and talk shows to defend Trump’s initial response to the rally, asking, “What is he supposed to say?”

Mark Burns, pastor of Harvest Praise & Worship Center and member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board

Burns tweeted a video before a pro-Trump rally with the words “#DavidDuke
and his Neo-Nazi Hate Groups don’t represent us Americans that Elected” Trump.

AME Church Council of Bishops

The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church released a statement Monday condemning not just the Unite the Right rally, but also Trump’s initial response. It read in part:

“In a word, what happened yesterday was a hate crime and domestic terrorism. It was demonic and does not represent what the United States claims it stands for.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center

“This murderous attack, resembles car rammings in Israel and Europe perpetrated by terrorists associated with ISIS and Hamas. It should be treated as a deliberate act of domestic terrorism,” said Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

National Council of Churches

The National Council of Churches condemned the gathering and its ideology, while grieving for “the lives needlessly lost” and expressing gratefulness for those who gave “moral witness.” Its statement read in part:

“We also give thanks for the moral witness given by concerned people of faith, including clergy, who came to Charlottesville to stand as a barrier before those gathered in the cause of white supremacy.  We are grateful for the leadership offered by Rev. Brittany Caine-Conley, Rev. Seth Wispelway, Congregate C’ville (a group instrumental in the organizing of the counter-protest), and dozens of others who spent countless hours preparing for this now-infamous day.  Their courage and faith in the face of hate is an inspiration to all of us.”

James Martin, Jesuit priest and editor at large of America Magazine

The Rev. James Martin tweeted: “Racism is a sin. All Christians, all people of faith, should not only reject it, not only oppose it, but fight against it.”

He followed that with a series of tweets and video explaining how white supremacy is the opposite of Jesus’ message.

Baldev Singh, executive director of Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

“Our deepest condolences and prayers go out to the families of the victims of this senseless and ugly incident. Attacks like this must be denounced by all Americans and our elected officials in the strongest terms possible. Free speech doesn’t equate to a free pass to spread bigotry and hate and inaction by the administration has emboldened these types of acts. Events like this are reprehensible and serve to further weaken the diversity that makes our country strong. We stand firmly against the xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric used by the organizers of this rally, and will continue to work towards a safe and secure climate for all Americans.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference

“When hell exhales the outcome is hatred. Both unacceptable and diabolical, racism must be confronted by God fearing people. I condemn the forces of white nationalism, white supremacy and antisemitism that divide our country today and I also condemn those who seek to politicize it all for their political gain.”

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary

“Nothing about white nationalism flows from the heart of God. May white, and all, followers of Jesus say and live a resounding NO to any form of white nationalism.”

Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR

“We condemn this apparent act of domestic terrorism targeting anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and urge all Americans to denounce the racists and Islamophobes brought to that city by the ‘Unite the Right’ rally.”

Awad also called out Trump’s “weak reaction to the terror attack” in his full statement.

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American Humanist Association and International Humanist and Ethical Union

In a joint statement, Andrew Copson, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, wrote in part:

“We deplore the violent and segregationist message of the marchers, and we deplore the violence which has caused injury and fatality. Our thoughts are with all the victims of this weekend’s violence, including the friends and family of activist Heather Heyer. And our thoughts are with all the good people of Charlottesville who do not want and do not deserve that their town be associated with the hatred and bigotry of the far-right, neo-Nazi agenda.”

Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church and member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board

“These protesters do not represent in any form or way the Christian faith or the values followers of Jesus stand for. In fact, white nationalism and white supremacism are anathema to the teachings of Christ, who called us to love and to serve our neighbor — regardless of skin color, gender or religion — to give up our life for our friends and even to love our enemies. As Christians, we do not tolerate or condone these protests, and we certainly and wholeheartedly denounce any form of supremacism, anti semitism or white nationalism that promotes racism, violence or hate.”

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

The USCCB released two statements regarding the rally, after the first received some backlash on social media for too-vague language about “violence and hatred in Charlottesville.” In one, USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Bishop Frank Dewane wrote, “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism. At the same time, we stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured.”

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

In a statement calling on the White House to terminate all staff members who have ties to extremist groups, Jonathan A. Greenblatt said: “We expected this to be the largest white supremacist gathering in the last decade. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the most violent as well.

“ADL has been sounding the alarm about domestic terrorism and hate crimes in America. This consistent threat requires consistent resources. It is long overdue for the President to develop a plan of action to combat white supremacy and all forms of hate, including investing funds in countering violent extremism from all ideological corners. We stand ready to partner in this effort. Without a clear denunciation and plan of action, these bigots are only emboldened.”

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Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Franklin Graham posted on Facebook defending the president, saying, “Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA.”

Among several posts on Twitter, he tweeted the link to his Facebook post twice more, denouncing “bigotry & racism of every form” and calling for prayers for peace.

Jonathan Lipman, chief strategy officer of Bend the Arc Jewish Action

“American Jews recognize these dangerous and escalating patterns. We’ve seen this before. This hatred must stop. And the way Trump and his Administration can help stop it is through actions, not only words. If he truly believes we must love and respect one another, he must fire the white nationalists in his office. He must renounce the use of violence against any human being. And he must forcefully condemn people like David Duke, who said today’s events were the fulfillment of the president’s campaign.”

Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary

“Our common enemy is the prince of darkness who warps and distorts the human heart – not the individual who may be enslaved in the grip of such prejudices. In other words, we condemn the racism, hatred and the violence it generates, not the perpetrator.  We must always realize he or she is a person that God loved enough to send his son to die for him or her.  It is in moments like this that we need to remind ourselves incessantly of the profound truth that Dr. King proclaimed in the midst of extreme provocation, ‘Those you would change you must first love.’”

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