The Reverend Bill Owens Stands Behind Trump
During the past several weeks, President Trump has been ramping up his racist and inflammatory attacks on nonwhite lawmakers and activists. After telling four lawmakers of color to “go back” to where they came from, he targeted Representative Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, saying that “no human being would want to live” in Cummings’s Baltimore-area district. He then tweeted about the Reverend Al Sharpton, saying that Sharpton hates “Whites & Cops.” While pundits debated whether this outburst of bigotry was a political tactic, Trump held a closed-door meeting with a group he called “Inner City Pastors.” This was a group of twenty African-American faith leaders who have generally been supportive of the President, including Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Among them was the Reverend Bill Owens, the founder of a nonprofit called the Coalition of African-American Pastors. Owens recently told the Times that he found it “hard to believe” that Trump is a racist, and he has met with Trump several times in the past year. Owens’s coalition, which he founded fifteen years ago, is known for its social conservatism; he has harshly criticized gay marriage, and he made news when he called Barack Obama a “Judas” for supporting it. (He also has spoken of a connection between gay marriage and child molestation.)
In 2012, Adam Serwer, reporting for Mother Jones, found that Owens, serving as the National Organization for Marriage’s liaison to black churches, was part of the organization’s strategy to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies.” Serwer’s article also raised questions about Owens’s claim to have been “a leader in the civil-rights movement”: civil-rights leaders, including Representative John Lewis, did not recall having met him.
I recently spoke by phone with Owens. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his meeting at the White House, what he thinks gay marriage has done to America, and how Trump could avoid getting in so much trouble.
What was discussed at your meeting with the President?
The most important things discussed were ways the President could help the African-American community with their challenges and their problems. And everybody had their input. And that’s kind of it. He wanted to know from us: What does he need to do to address the issues in the black community?
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Do you feel that he was receptive to what people had to say?
Of course, yes, very receptive.
Of course. So you think he has a pretty deep understanding of the problems affecting the black community?
So what have you made of the President’s comments over the past few weeks about African-American public figures?
Well, I think that we play up the criticism that the President made of Mr. Cummings. On the other side of the coin, I have heard Mr. Cummings grill the President. [Cummings is the chair of the House Oversight Committee, which is pursuing multiple investigations related to President Trump.] So then when it came to Mr. Cummings, when the President said something about him, the criticism was high. I think, being human, he felt he should respond to Mr. Cummings.
Almost like the President was backed into a corner and had no choice but to attack?
You could say that. I think most people would have said something before now.
You stated, about his criticism of the four Democratic congresswomen whom he told to go back where they came from, that “I felt that he should have more information because only one was not born in America, so that tells me he had not done his homework on that issue. But I think those four people needed to be criticized.” He is obviously a busy man as President—was the problem that he didn’t do all of his homework?
I don’t know whether it was that he didn’t do his homework. I think had he done his homework, he would have known. So I think maybe he did not do his homework, as he should, because this is a big world and this is a big country, and when you put something out there, as I am talking to you, I think we have to be careful what we say, and we should check our facts.
A lot of people, and a lot of African-Americans, feel that there was a racial basis for some of these comments. You don’t see that?
I don’t see that. This country is based on race now. Everybody tries to make a race issue out of everything, because they are trying to say the President doesn’t like black people. I don’t see that. They are using that because it is popular to do it now, and it polarizes black people against the President. I think it is very unfortunate.
It seems like a lot of people tried to do that about Charlottesville, too. The President made comments about there being good people on both sides, and people tried to turn that into a discussion of the President being racist.
They did turn it into a discussion of the President being racist. I wouldn’t have answered it like that, but I am not the President.
So you don’t think, when he said there were good people on both sides, he was trying to be offensive or anything?
I don’t think so.
The President got in trouble in some quarters for birtherism, with people saying that questioning where President Obama was born was a racist trope. What did you feel about that?
It is evident that he was not right on that issue. It is evident that President Obama was born here. And I can’t answer what was in Mr. Trump’s head when he said that. But it appears that he made a mistake on that point.
I think a lot of this is just that he is not doing all the research he needs, and, if he would do a little more research, maybe these problems would come up less often.
That’s right. I think that’s true. I think that would be accurate.
That’s the thing—even well-meaning people have to do the research.
You have to do the research. And, many times, that is the reason black pastors are reluctant to be interviewed by the press.
Why is that?
They ask, “Where is the trap? What are you trying to get me to say that I don’t want to say?” That happens every day to me. But I am bold enough to take my shot and try to be as honest as I can, regardless to where it takes me.
Yeah. I almost just wish he had someone, like an intern, maybe, who could do the research for him, and then he wouldn’t get into these problems, because that person would Google and find out where Obama was from. It would be easy to avoid some of these issues.
Yes, I think you are right.
About President Obama, whom you called a “Judas,” you once said, “The President is in the White House because of the civil-rights movement, and I was a leader in that movement. And I didn’t march one inch, one foot, one yard, for a man to marry a man and a woman to marry a woman.” What did you mean by this?
Exactly what I said. And this is the only area I criticized the President on, when he tried to push same-sex marriage. [Owens endorsed Mike Huckabee in the 2008 election.] I marched in the civil-rights movement, and I have twelve other people that marched with me. And we were ready to go to Washington and tell the people who claimed the civil-rights movement, “That is not why we marched.” And they hijacked the civil-rights movement for their own ends. We didn’t march for that. But they used it, they abused the civil-rights movement.
Who is “they”?
President Obama did when he pushed same-sex marriage. We marched in the civil-rights movement. We know why we marched. And that is not the reason we marched. Even today I hear “civil rights” all the time: “his civil rights, his civil rights.”
It’s been several years since gay marriage has been legalized. What is your sense of how that has gone for America?
It’s still been terrible. It’s terrible! It has terrified children! Look at what they have done. Look at the men playing women in kindergarten. I forget what they call it, where they call it a civil right. These big men pretending they are women, playing with little children. And it sends the wrong message to little children. They think it is O.K., and it is not O.K.
Some religious-conservative supporters of the President have expressed some reservations about the President’s life and his romances and sleeping with porn stars. Is that something that concerns you as a man of faith?
Let me tell you as a man of faith: I know what the Bible says. If you are a sinner, and repent your sins, your sins are forgiven. Who would have a better relationship with Christ than these rank sinners? All of us were sinners, and, if we asked God to forgive us, he forgives us for our sins. So that goes for everybody, no exceptions to who you are.
Do you talk about the Lord with the President?
We all talk about the Lord with him. We are very religious leaders and we put that in all of our conversations.
Some religious leaders have expressed anxiety about children being separated from their parents at the border. How do you, as a man of faith, feel about that?
The border is a big issue. I look at the border maybe differently from the way many people look at it. I look at the black children in America who have lost their parents. For years, they put the black father out of the home. The federal government hired a hundred thousand social workers to put the black father out of the home and put the mother on welfare. What did that do to children? It was done by our government on purpose.
What about the children who don’t have a father or mother, in some cases, because of what is happening at the border under the Administration’s zero-tolerance policies?
I am concerned about any child and their parents. I don’t care if they are at the border or in the inner city. But what can I do? Can we just take children from all over the world and do better with them than we have with our citizens? Black people died for this country. We fought for this country for hundreds of years. And we are still being neglected, and no one is talking about it.
Adam Serwer wrote a piece for Mother Jones back in 2012 in which he could find no evidence of your work in the civil-rights movement.
I remember that very well.
You did make the comment about gay marriage where you said you didn’t march an inch or a foot or a yard for gay rights. Was that literally true because you didn’t actually march?
I marched! What are you talking about? I marched. I have marched with John Lewis. I marched in the civil-rights movement like everybody else. Thousands of us. I was not a great leader, but how are you going to go back sixty years and tell what I did?