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FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump responds to a reporter's question after signing a memorandum at the White House in Washington, U.S. on August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Doina Chiacu and Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two prominent religious conservatives defended U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday after he was widely criticized for blaming both white nationalists and counter-protesters for last weekend's violence at a Virginia rally organised by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell Jr said Trump could be more polished and politically correct but is not racist. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who last week criticized the white nationalists' "evil, sinful, disgusting behaviour," said unequivocally on Sunday that the faith community stood by Trump.
The responses reflect a balancing act by conservative Christians as they try to square the images that emerged from the Virginia city of Charlottesville last weekend - torch-carrying white supremacists and neo-Nazis toting swastika flags - with support for a president that failed to condemn them roundly and immediately.
Trump alienated fellow Republicans, corporate leaders and U.S. allies with his comments about the violence that broke out at a white nationalist protest against the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville. He said "many sides" were to blame and that there were "very fine people" on both sides.
Trump also decried the removal of Civil War monuments to the Confederacy that several cities have deemed offensive for their connection to slavery.
But the remarks, including those at a fiery Trump news conference on Tuesday, may not dent support from his political base, where white evangelical Christian voters are a major component.
Many in the evangelical Christian community condemned the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists who marched in the University of Virginia town before one of them ploughed through a crowd of counter-protesters and killed a 32-year-old woman.
Fewer criticized Trump directly.
Falwell, president of the Christian-based Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Trump likely had more detailed information on protesters when he described "fine people" on both sides.
"One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn't say what's politically correct, he says what is in his heart," Falwell told ABC's "This Week" programme. "But he does not have a racist bone in his body."
National Public Radio reported on Sunday that a number of Liberty University graduates were preparing to return their diplomas to protest his support for Trump. Falwell said they misunderstood that support.
FAITH COUNCIL LOSES ONE MEMBER
Huckabee, a conservative Baptist minister before entering politics, said Trump "has the faith community."
"This is an attempt to discredit and ultimately dislodge Donald Trump from the White House," Huckabee told Fox Business Network.
Huckabee noted that only one person on a faith council that advises Trump had stepped down since the controversy.
New York City megachurch pastor A.R. Bernard said he left Trump's unofficial evangelical advisory board on Tuesday after having distanced himself for several months as "it became obvious that there was a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration."
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser to the White House, said in a statement he deeply respects Bernard. "We have every intention to continue to extend invitations to him to contribute his perspective on issues important to all of us," he said.
Pastor Mark Burns, an African-American televangelist who leads a small congregation in South Carolina and serves on the board, said in an interview on MSNBC on Saturday that he stood by Trump.
"I don’t believe he supported neo-Nazis, I don't believe he's supporting white supremacists at all," Burns said in an interview with MSNBC on Saturday. "I would have personally said stronger (things) in reference to the KKK, neo-Nazis, but I don’t have all the information."
Franklin Graham, the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, denounced bigotry and racism on his Facebook page a day after the Charlottesville violence, but at the same time, he also took aim at politicians who tried to connect Trump to that turmoil.
One member of the evangelical community, biblical studies professor Denny Burk of Boyce College in Kentucky, condemned the president's remarks at Tuesday's news conference as "more than disappointing."
"They were morally bankrupt and completely unacceptable. People who protest while chanting Nazi slogans are not 'very fine people,'" Burk wrote in an article posted on his Facebook page.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Sarah N. Lynch, Julia Harte; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Caren Bohan and Mary Milliken)