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Trump's language on immigrants provokes a backlash in the pulpits

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
President Trump leads a roundtable in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Jan. 11, 2018. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When a pastor at my church in Washington, D.C., spoke up Sunday against President Trump’s vulgar comments demeaning people from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa, it signaled to me that the president had debased his office in a way that many Christians found even more inexcusable than his personal lapses.

Because the church I attend is racially and politically diverse, the pastors tend to tread lightly around anything perceived to be politically partisan.

But Trump’s alleged remarks were so egregious to the Rev. Joel Schmidgall at National Community Church that he felt compelled to speak out. Anecdotal reports from across the country suggest that my pastor’s reaction was not an isolated incident.

A Washington Post roundup from around the country included examples of pastors from many different denominations, and in conservative parts of the country, speaking out against Trump’s language, and of even usually reserved congregations responding with applause.

Religious institutions also weighed in. Calvin College, an influential evangelical university in Grand Rapids, Mich., issued a scathing denunciation of the president.

“These comments sow fear and hatred in our country, and they are wrong,” said a joint statement issued by the presidents of Calvin College and Calvin Seminary. The statement called out the president specifically, and asserted that “it is our Christian duty and responsibility to separate ourselves from racist and hateful remarks and sentiments.”

“The world cannot be confused about what we believe,” Calvin’s leaders stated.

These responses from nonpolitical bodies demonstrated that the backlash to Trump’s remarks was far more than cable news catnip. It has the potential to become a defining moment of the Trump presidency, similar to his “both sides” equivocation when asked to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Photos: Violent clashes erupt at ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Va. »

“I think it’s like ‘I am not a crook’ or ‘depends on what the meaning of is is’ or the malaise speech. It sums up so much that it becomes a metaphor of its own,” one influential evangelical leader told me.

I spoke with others who were surprised at the extent of the backlash to Trump’s comments. For many who closely follow the news, the president’s remark was simply the latest in a long and ongoing pattern of demeaning and abusive language.

But it led some who had tried to give Trump the benefit of the doubt to a conclusion they had hoped to avoid: that the president of the United States is a racist. He was openly described that way on one of the most popular daytime TV programs in the country.

“I have said repeatedly, ‘I can’t look into Donald Trump’s heart. I can’t say he is a racist,’” said Sunny Hostin, on ABC’s “The View.”

Hostin and co-host Whoopi Goldberg focused on Trump’s reported comment that he wanted more people to come to the United States from Norway, rather than Africa or Haiti, as a last straw of sorts.

“I can say now Donald Trump is a racist. I can say that now. I can say that now. And I hate saying it, but I can say that now,” Hostin said.

CNN’s Van Jones said Trump had “shown his heart.”

Even some members of Trump’s own religious advisory council criticized him.

For people of faith in America, there was an added element tied to the church’s longstanding commitment to what is known among Christians as “missions,” or the mandate to go to other countries to share the Christian gospel along with material assistance.

Photos: After Trump’s comments, a look back at Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake »

Haiti has been a particular focus for church missions since the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 that killed roughly 200,000 people.

“This [Trump comment] is different because there’s so many churches that have mission trips and mission relationships to folks in Haiti. So it can’t be objectified,” said Emilie M. Townes, dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University, in an interview.

“So much of why Trump gets away with what he says is people don’t have a relationship with people, they haven’t been to a country, they haven’t seen how hard people are trying to rebuild,” Townes said. But “in those mission relationships they’re building real human relationships. Folks I know who have been to Haiti have really been changed. … The thing that I hear most commonly is a kind of resilience they’ve never seen themselves in this country.”

When they hear comments like Trump’s, “there’s a visceral response of, ‘This isn’t true, these are my brothers and sisters in Christ.’”

The Rev. Duke Kwon, pastor of Grace Meridian Hill Church in northeast D.C., wrote in a statement that he was “not so naïve as to think that this sort of coarse and insulting speech isn’t exchanged among officials of all parties behind closed doors all the time.”

Kwon added: “But when such words — descending from the highest office in the land — become publicly known, absent any apology or accountability, they are baked into the moral platform of that office.”

He said that any attempt to defend or excuse Trump’s remarks by other Christians was “an indefensible performance of pharisaical moral gymnastics.”

But a Trump supporter, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said that “apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target.”

Though Kwon did not mention Jeffress by name, he said that when such excuses are made “it becomes all the more right and proper for Christ’s followers to condemn those remarks publicly.”

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