(RNS) — The Rev. A.R. Bernard resigned from the White House’s evangelical advisory board, the first departure from that council in the wake of President Trump’s widely condemned comments on a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Bernard owed his departure to a “deepening conflict in values” with the administration.
My statement regarding my resignation from the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board. pic.twitter.com/Ocae6SQxjZ
— A. R. Bernard (@ARBernard) August 18, 2017
The lead pastor at the Christian Cultural Center, the largest evangelical church in New York City, Bernard tweeted out his letter of resignation from the high-profile board on Friday (Aug. 18).
Its members endured criticism this past week for standing by Trump after he appeared to many on Tuesday to draw a moral equivalence between protesters and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, and as executives, in response to the president’s comments, began to resign from White House business boards.
In Charlottesville, white nationalists shouted anti-Semitic and racist slogans, and a woman died after a car driven by a Nazi sympathizer plowed into a crowd of anti-racism activists.
Bernard, 64, was perhaps the evangelical advisory board member most likely to publicly dissociate himself from it during a week in which a broad spectrum of religious and political leaders accused Trump of pandering to bigots.
He was a teenage civil rights activist and leads a church in diverse Brooklyn, where Trump garnered few votes. He voted twice each for Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and takes a softer stance on same-sex marriage than many of his evangelical Christian colleagues.
Bernard, on Don Lemon’s show on CNN Friday, said other members of the advisory council should be more willing to publicly criticize the president.
“I would love to see more of the evangelical leaders who are on the board make strong statements in reaction to it, and that doesn’t mean they have to abandon him,” he said, adding, “But they should come out and say something of substance.”
The Trump campaign announced its Evangelical Executive Advisory Board in June 2016 as the then-candidate became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. It was tasked with convening regularly to “provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to Evangelicals and other people of the faith in America,” according to a statement at the time.
The board was not officially convened by the administration after the election. But it did not disband either, and, since then, “its relationship with the White House has been informal but certainly active,” said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical author and advocate who has served as unofficial spokesperson for the group, in an email to RNS.
“The members of the board have been the anchor attendees/invitees of all the evangelical meetings and a number of us have acted as unofficial advisors in various ways across the government, all in our capacity as private citizens,” Moore continued.
The White House has hosted several meetings of prominent evangelical Christians since Trump took office, including a May dinner the night before the National Day of Prayer in the Blue Room of the White House and two gatherings in July. One has been described as a day of meetings with White House staff at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in July that ended with a prayer for the president in the Oval Office.
The Rev. James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in suburban Chicago, was the first to resign from the evangelical advisory board last fall after the release of a 2005 recording of Trump making lewd remarks about women.
Bernard said in a tweeted statement about his resignation that he had distanced himself from the evangelical advisory board months ago.
After Trump’s comments Tuesday, in which the president referred to the “fine people” among both protesters and counter-protesters, CEOs began to resign from two White House business advisory councils, citing their own commitments to tolerance and racial equality and how, as the councils pursued a stronger economy, politics had become a distraction. The president later announced he was disbanding both his Strategy and Policy Forum and his Manufacturing Council.
The remaining members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities all also resigned Friday (Aug. 18) in a letter sent to the White House.
Attention then turned to the president’s religious counselors, with critics asking why evangelical advisory board members wouldn’t break with Trump.
“While America’s manufacturing giants take principled moral stands against white supremacy and Donald Trump’s failure on Saturday to renounce racists by name, none of the members of his ‘Evangelical Advisory Council’ — the so-called court evangelicals – have resigned their posts,” John Fea, a professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania who studies Christianity and American history, wrote on Tuesday.
“Apparently in the United States it is the manufacturers, not the evangelical clergy who advise the POTUS, who now deliver moral messages to the White House.”
Could you imagine Daniel, Jeremiah, Samuel, Nathan, or Isaiah saying they’d no longer advise or speak to the king or government?
— Tony Suarez-NHCLC VP (@revtonysuarez) August 16, 2017
While many members of the evangelical advisory group last week spoke out against bigotry on social media, and from their pulpits on Sunday, they also declared that it would be wrong to abandon a president more in need of faithful advisers than ever.
Neither did they abandon Bernard, with several tweeting statements or making remarks on weekend news shows complimenting the pastor.
“I deeply respect and have always respected, Dr. Bernard,” Moore said Friday evening in a written statement.
“Sometimes, friends disagree & that doesn’t change our commitment to our shared faith and friendship. We have every intention to continue to extend invitations to him to contribute his perspective on issues important to all of us.”
More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, the largest proportion of all religious groups polled. These voters often say that though they do not always approve of Trump’s personal behavior, they admire his leadership skills and business acumen and appreciate that he kept his promise to nominate a conservative to the Supreme Court.