Pat Robertson, an influential Christian leader in the United States, has rebuked President Donald Trump for his threats to call in the US military against civilians and his hardline stance against the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a white police officer on May 25.
Robertson opened his nightly “700 Club” television show on Tuesday by saying the political moment in the US now calls for compassion and reassurance, not the threats of dominance and military force that President Trump offered in recent days.
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“It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain. I want to comfort you. I think it’s time we love each other’. But the president took a different course. He said, ‘I am the president of law and order’,” Robertson said.
“And he issued a heads up. He said: ‘I’m ready to send in military troops if the nation’s governors don’t act to quell the violence that has rocked American cities’. Matter of fact, he spoke of them as being jerks,” Robertson said.
“You just don’t do that. Mr president. It isn’t cool,” he said.
The rebuke was surprising because Robertson, who is one the founding leaders of the white, evangelical Christian movement in the US, has been a consistent supporter of Trump. His television show, begun in 1966, is seen by an estimated one million Americans every day.
One in four American adults belong to an evangelical Christian denomination and they voted 81 percent for Trump in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan group.
Trump sparked controversy earlier this week when he posed for photographs in front of an historic Episcopal church near the White House that had been briefly set on fire by protesters on June 1. Episcopalians are not considered evangelical Christians.
Federal police in riot gear and on horseback had forcefully cleared a city park so that Trump and top officials could walk to the church.
Pat Robertson tells Trump that his response to the George Floyd protests "isn't cool." pic.twitter.com/vDBYxxUp10
— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) June 2, 2020
Trump, who is not particularly religious, casually brandished the Bible upside down and backwards in his hand.
The move was widely interpreted as a publicity stunt and drew criticism from Episcopalian and Catholic church leaders.
Bishop Michael Curry, the head of the Episcopal Church, released a statement, saying Trump had used the Bible and the church for “partisan political purposes” instead of coming to the church to pray, which many other presidents have done.
At “a time of deep political hurt and pain in our country … his action did nothing to help us to heal us,” Curry said.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, criticised Trump in a national television news interview and on Twitter, calling the president’s appearance at the church “revolting”.
Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo op. Religion is not a political tool. God is not your plaything. pic.twitter.com/RZwPeqrwoZ
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) June 2, 2020
But in a Fox News radio interview, Trump rejected the criticism from church leaders as partisan.
“Most religious leaders loved it. I heard Franklin Graham this morning thought it was great. Most religious leaders thought it was great,” Trump said.
“It’s only the other side that didn’t like it, the opposition party as the expression goes,” Trump said.
Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor who gave the sermon for Trump’s inauguration as president in 2017, defended Trump in an appearance on Fox News on Tuesday.
“It was unbelievable what happened Sunday night that anarchists would try to destroy that historic church,” Jeffress said.
— Dr. Robert Jeffress (@robertjeffress) June 2, 2020
“I believe President Trump was absolutely correct in walking over there … and standing in front of that church to show his solidarity not only with that congregation but with houses of worship all across America, demonstrating his intent to protect churches from those who would try to destroy them,” he said.
In his 700 Club monologue, Robertson also questioned Trump’s public threats to call in the US military against the protesters, which the Trump administration has now backed away from.
“The question is, does the president have the authority to call out the troops,” he said. “You have got to go all the way back to pre-Civil War days to find an ordinance to give him that authority.”
The Pentagon had deployed rapid response, assault troops to military bases in the Washington, DC, region as well as two brigades of military police.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he did not believe invoking the president’s authority to put down insurrections by military force would be necessary. Defense Department officials told The Associated Press news agency troops would return to their home bases in North Carolina and New York.
There have been signs recently that Trump’s political support among evangelicals may be eroding.
An evangelical magazine founded by the late Reverend Billy Graham published an editorial on December 19 during Trump’s impeachment in Congress calling for his removal from office for “gross immorality and ethical incompetence”.
A survey conducted in late April and early May by Pew found that support among evangelicals for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while still strong, had slipped by 6 percentage points.