FRESNO, Calif. — As the drama over offensive comments by two television stars gripped the nation this past week, much of the attention focused on President Donald Trump’s Twitter responses.
Why, he asked, did Barr’s remarks result in her show being canceled while ABC, which aired Barr’s show, had never apologized to him for the network’s many perceived offenses against him?
The day after Barr’s tweet, Samantha Bee’s vulgar reference to Trump’s daughter Ivanka amplified the argument. Why wasn’t Bee losing her show, the president asked, suggesting an inconsistency under which the conservative Barr was punished harshly while Bee, a Trump-bashing liberal, received a pass.
That sentiment resonated here in the Central Valley communities of California, where Christian conservative values run deep. Evangelicals have long complained that they are lampooned based on caricatures of their faith, resulting in little or no outrage.
Rick Countryman, who leads Big Valley Grace Community Church, a large evangelical church in Modesto, California, called Barr’s racist tweet “really crummy” but also pointed to the time when Joy Behar, a comedian on ABC’s “The View,” described Vice President Mike Pence’s religious beliefs as a “mental illness.”
“It seems like a pass is given to those on the left,” he said in an interview. “It seems like it’s more acceptable to take a shot at a Christian and what they believe.”
But elsewhere in this California Bible Belt, another group of evangelical pastors saw the incident as the latest example of racial tension in their community, which they believe has been exacerbated by Trump.
Three evangelical pastors from Fresno — a city that is half Hispanic, a third non-Hispanic white, and a tenth black — met Thursday morning to talk with The New York Times. Despite their differences over Trump, the pastors have worked together to try to build unity across their city.
Their comments — about Barr, Trump and the cultural and racial divide in the country — reflected evangelicals’ complex relationship with a president who has achieved important policy goals of conservative Christians but has also frustrated them with actions they believe add to the divisions in their community.
Elias Loera is the pastor of Christian Temple Fresno, a church with a large Latino population, and leads a network of more than 300 evangelical pastors in the Fresno-Clovis area. Paul Lawrence Binion II leads Westside Church of God, a Pentecostal and largely African-American church that draws about 500 people every Sunday. Bob Willis is the pastor of Northpark Community Church, a mostly white congregation in the northern part of the city.
Here is what they had to say.
— Accountability on Racism
Barr’s tweet likening a black former aide to President Barack Obama to an ape was undeniably racist, the three pastors agreed. Equally troubling, they said, was Trump’s lack of condemnation of it.
Loera voted for Trump in 2016, and supports many of his policies. But on this issue he believes Trump has let him down.
“I don’t care what Roseanne says,” he said, seated with the other pastors on blue chairs in the foyer of his church. “As a veteran, as a citizen, I care what my president says. It is getting really hard to defend him.”
He added that Trump’s response to examples of racism was especially important because the president has aligned himself with evangelicals, which provided him with one of his most important sources of voter support in 2016.
At moments when Trump has failed to condemn racism, he said, Anglo evangelical churches have all too often remained silent.
“Where are these ‘leading’ evangelical pastors?” Loera said, drawing air quotes with his fingers. “We use our little platforms to speak out on insensitive remarks. The guys with the large platform should be doing it on a regular basis.”
— A Costly Divide
Trump’s lack of condemnation of the racism in Barr’s tweet was just the latest example of how he has widened the national divide, especially on issues of race, Binion said.
“The bigots are coming out of the closet,” he said, citing episodes like the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. “They have a person in the presidency that will keep them alive.”
Binion recalled how his father had taken him as a child in Alabama to hear President Dwight D. Eisenhower speak, to teach him from an early age to respect the nation’s leaders. Then, his family sat in the “colored” section. But now, he said, he would not do the same for his grandchildren. “He has managed to insult every ethnicity and every gender, the handicapped,” he said of Trump.
Binion, a registered Democrat, cast a write-in vote for Michelle Obama for president in 2016.
Willis added that Bee’s vulgarity about Ivanka Trump was also disturbing. “It seems like there is no punishment, or very little, on that end,” he said, alluding to a double standard. “That shows the divide we have in our nation.”
Though Loera voted for Trump, he also believes his duty is to call out his inappropriate moral behavior. “I can still love my president and pray for him, and disagree with what he says,” he said.
And he recognizes that many members of his congregation will support the president no matter what. When he spoke out from the pulpit against Trump’s denigrating comments about immigrants early this year, he said, a family left his church.
— Franklin Graham’s crusade in Fresno
The evangelist Franklin Graham’s California rally last week in Fresno also exposed the underlying racial tension in the evangelical community, the three pastors said.
They recalled that when Graham, the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, announced his tour, the pastors of more affluent communities in Fresno tended to support his mission of mobilizing evangelical voters.
Local African-American evangelical leaders, however, opposed it; they recalled how Graham had not condemned Trump’s comments about immigrants and his equivocating response to Charlottesville.
Binion, who helped lead Billy Graham’s crusade to Fresno in 2001, called Franklin Graham “a pretender” and objected to his call for a travel ban against Muslims, issued before Trump’s, and to his hostility to LGBTQ people.
While Loera had supported Graham’s trip to Fresno, pastors like Binion had been so opposed to it that a representative from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association flew out to meet with them this year in an attempt to address their concerns, the pastors said. After the meeting, Binion decided to make the information about the crusade available to his church but to not promote it from the pulpit. A spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said that meeting with local churches in advance was standard practice before such tours.
Willis said that when he showed a promotional video for Graham’s visit to his congregation, which is largely white, several families walked out, and he worried that Graham’s trip could fracture the unity the local pastors had been working to build in recent years.
“Unity,” Willis said, “was more important than a Christian celebrity coming to town.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.