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Faith Council Members Take A Step Back From Advising Trump

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to talk a bit more about the ongoing fallout from President Trump's comment blaming both sides for the violence that erupted at a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month. A young woman, a counterprotester, was killed. Three of the president's advisory councils are now defunct after several prominent CEOs left the business advisory councils and members of his committee on the arts and humanities resigned as a group. Now faith leaders are taking action.

Earlier this week, a prominent coalition of rabbis pulled out of an annual call with the U.S. president - a tradition that marks the arrival of the Jewish High Holidays. In a statement, the rabbis said that the president's words have, quote, "given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia," unquote. They said they had no choice but to cancel the call.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner was part of that decision. He is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. To be clear, we are speaking with him in advance of the Sabbath. Rabbi Pesner, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JONAH PESNER: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And a few days before the rabbi's announcement, a prominent New York pastor, A.R. Bernard, resigned from the president's board of evangelical advisors, citing a deepening conflict of values between himself and the administration. Pastor Bernard was part of Trump's advisory council during the campaign and sat at the president's table the night before the National Day of Prayer, when the president gathered several religious leaders to announce an executive order on religious freedom. And Pastor Bernard is with me now, as well. Pastor, thank you so much for joining us, as well.

A.R. BERNARD: Thank you for the invitation. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So let me start with you, Rabbi. Would you mind telling me in your own words, why did you feel compelled to cancel the call?

PESNER: To answer the question, I just have to paint a picture for your listeners about what that Saturday morning was like. It was the Sabbath. There were 40 Jews gathered at our temple in Charlottesville. And they were trying to pray freely. They had actually gathered early that morning because they were going to join in with the vigil across lines of faith with Christians and Muslim partners to speak out against bigotry. And they discovered that there were three white nationalists outside the doors of the synagogue that were armed and dangerous.

And they made a decision that they had to sneak out the back door of the temple so as not to incite any kind of violence. The night before, they had witnessed as these white supremacists had marched through their town with torches, chanting, Jews will not replace us, and Nazi slogans. And so it was quite chilling for us to have the president of the United States draw a false equivalency between those white supremacists, those Nazis, and the people who were protesting their presence.

MARTIN: I know you've been asked this before. But Pastor Bernard, for those who haven't been able to access your comments until now, there have been years of criticism about Donald Trump's racial attitudes and conduct - allegations of housing discrimination, not to mention advancing the lie that former President Obama was not born in the United States. So why did the Charlottesville statement evoke the deepening conflict in values that you cited in your resignation statement?

BERNARD: I believe that it's important that we, as religious leaders with a moral prophetic and humanitarian voice, be present at the table of any administration, so regardless of who is president or what political party is in power. So I cherish any opportunity that I've had with the Clintons, with both Bush, father and son. I did not have that opportunity with Barack Obama. So it means that I'm willing to overlook some of the issues and the rhetoric that is natural to the campaign trail.

And when it came to Charlottesville and a very important issue for me as a person of color, it was very serious for me. And I believe that religion and faith should play a role in the public square. But I think that when religious leaders decide to get involved in politics, we must establish moral boundaries going in.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what about you? Do you envision any way you could engage with President Trump in the future, precisely for the point that Pastor Bernard made, which is that this is a way to advocate for the things that you believe in even if the person you're engaging with is not someone that you adore?

PESNER: Our job as religious leaders is to speak truth to power and hold elected officials on both sides of the aisle accountable to our enduring religious values. That came long before this administration or any presidency and will endure long beyond. And so that's our job. And that's what we were doing in issuing that call, as we did publicly. And as we continue to advocate with this administration, our lines of communication are open. And we'll continue to advocate.

And I think it's important for people to realize that the content of this call would have been on the holiest days of the year for the rabbis - the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur holidays - a deeply spiritual moment. And there is so much pain and fear, we couldn't give this president, who has given comfort and aid to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, that kind of platform.

BERNARD: I have to say amen to that because when it comes to racism, bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, KKK, white supremacy, there are not many sides. There's only one side. It's unacceptable.

MARTIN: From a different perspective, could it be viewed that this is, perhaps, the person who needs to hear from you the most? I'm reminded of Reverend Jesse Jackson's comments when he traveled to Serbia seeking the release of U.S. service members who'd been captured during the Baltic conflict. And he prayed with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. He was criticized for that. And he said, you know what? It's my job to pray for sinners.

BERNARD: Right. I will continue to pray for the president. I even made myself available on specific issues and projects that are dear to my heart that can advocate my beliefs. But to belong to an official body, such as a council or a board, it means that whatever decisions they make, whatever relationship that they continue with the president, I endorse it. And that's not true. I can't do that.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what about you?

PESNER: Right. As with Pastor Bernard, we'll continue not only to pray for this president and to speak out publicly. Just to be very clear to your listeners, this was not cutting off all dialogue with the White House. This was a way to make sure that this platform, the High Holiday message, was not hijacked at this very critical moment in American Jewish History.

MARTIN: I was curious about how people who are part of your congregations and your networks - those who look to you for guidance - what do you think they want from you right now? Rabbi?

PESNER: Our folks are afraid, Jews in particular as a religious minority. But all communities that are minority communities - communities of color, other religious minorities - they're afraid. And they need reassurance. We need to pray together. We need to come together because it's not just about bigoted rhetoric, it's about policies. And there are policies, whether it's the right to vote, right to access health care or, as Pastor Bernard said, the reconstruction of some of our cities which are challenged. Those are policies. And we need to make sure those policies pass.

MARTIN: Pastor Bernard, how do you see your role right now?

BERNARD: I will tell you that my congregation wants to see me and in any leader, we want to see maturity - acceptance of responsibility for words, thoughts, motives, actions, attitudes, which includes decorum, knowing how to conduct ourselves in any given situation as a leader with that kind of power. We want to see decisiveness. We want to see consistency. We don't want to see vacillation. We want to see strength that stands by convictions. And, you know, that's what they're looking for from me as a leader. And that's what I'm looking for and, I believe, our nation is looking for in our president. And we haven't seen that.

MARTIN: That was Pastor A.R. Bernard of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. He had been a member of President Trump's Evangelical Advisory Board. Also with us, Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. It's based in Washington, but we reached him in Boston. Rabbi Pesner, Pastor Bernard, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BERNARD: Thank you so much.

PESNER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.