NEW YORK (AP) — Many religious leaders have strongly condemned President Donald Trump's disparaging remarks about minority members of Congress. Prominent figures on the religious right have not joined in, instead maintaining public silence or insisting that Trump's tactics reflect hard-nosed politics rather than racism.
"He does not judge people by the color of their skin," said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Southern Baptist megachurch First Baptist Dallas and a frequent guest at the White House.
"He judges people on whether they support him," Jeffress said. "If you embrace him, he'll embrace you. If you attack him, he'll attack you. That's the definition of colorblind."
Debate over Trump's inflammatory tweets and comments has flared over the past few weeks. He told four outspoken congresswomen of color — three of them born in the U.S.--to "go back" where they came from. He also derided two black leaders — the Rev. Al Sharpton and Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, of Maryland — and called the majority-black city of Baltimore a "rodent-infested mess."
In response, 11 leaders of Protestant and Catholic groups in Maryland issued a public letter Tuesday imploring Trump to "stop putting people down."
"Enough of the harmful rhetoric that angers and discourages the people and communities you are called to serve," the leaders wrote.
A similar message came the same day from leaders of the Washington National Cathedral, designated by Congress as a non-denominational National House of Prayer.
"As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over," said a statement from three cathedral leaders. "We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation."
The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice group Sojourners, assailed Trump's remarks as "a public sin that must be called out" and challenged five of the president's evangelical supporters, including Jeffress and the Rev. Franklin Graham, to publicly denounce his rhetoric.
"If we hear silence from white people of faith, we are in deep spiritual trouble," Wallis wrote on Sojourners' web site. "Christian moral objection to the president's racist language must grow every day and from many quarters."
Graham, the son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham and president of the charity Samaritan's Purse, said the president's critics had devalued the word "racism."
"The left has weaponized it and uses it against their opponents," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "The president is not afraid to go after anyone — their color has nothing to do with it. It's the person's ideology and politics."
Graham contended that Trump was justified in his criticism of Cummings' district encompassing much of Baltimore.
"The president is right — it should be investigated," Graham said. "Billions of federal dollars have been given to this area. It certainly hasn't helped the people of Baltimore."
Among Trump's most outspoken evangelical supporters is Alveda King, a niece of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and a longtime anti-abortion activist. She was among a group of black pastors who met with Trump at the White House on Monday.
Citing her family's credo, King said, "When we dealt with racism, it was in prayer, not condemnation."
"I don't have to pray for President Trump for being a racist, because he's not," she said. "He's not colorblind —he can see and appreciate ethnic differences. But he's going to treat everybody with the same regard."
Some prominent evangelical leaders, thus far, have chosen not to wade into the public debate over Trump and racism.
Three high-level leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention update their websites frequently with topical commentary, but there have been no postings about the Trump/racism debate by the SBC's president, the Rev. J.D. Greear; the head of its flagship seminary, the Rev. Albert Mohler; or the head of its public policy arm, the Rev. Russell Moore.
Jeffress, the Dallas pastor who's been a friend of Trump's since 2015, said there are numerous SBC leaders who have been "Never Trumpers" since the launch of his candidacy.
"They're out of step with mainstream Southern Baptists, who've been loyal to Donald Trump since the beginning," Jeffress said. "It's caused many of them to go silent."
Another conservative denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this week declined to comment on the racial discussion triggered by Trump's recent tweets. Spokesman Eric Hawkins instead cited a July 21 speech by church President Russell M. Nelson at the NACCP convention in Detroit, where he urged people to love one another no matter their differences.
"We are all connected, and we have a God-given responsibility to help make life better for those around us," Nelson said. "We don't have to be alike or look alike to have love for each other. We don't even have to agree with each other to love each other."
(Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.)