One would think that a National Prayer Breakfast would encourage transparency and truth; as prayer is a primary spiritual means of self-examination, confession, reconciliation, and moral resolve. The opposite was on display at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, attended by over 3500 guests, including dignitaries from over 140 countries, Congress persons, business officials, and faith leaders. There President Donald Trump wrapped one falsehood after another in the language of faith, sadly to the repeated applause of many attendees.
President Trump began his Prayer Breakfast speech by attacking Sen. Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, who, at Trump’s Senate trial the day before, “swore an oath before God to apply impartial justice,” which led him to become the only Republican to vote to convict and remove Trump from office for his abuse of power. Trump criticized Romney’s faith-based act of conscience, saying, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” That’s the very deception Trump himself proceeded to employ – in a speech in which he repeatedly used religious terminology to cover up his wrongs. He began:
In America, we don’t punish prayer. We don’t tear down crosses. We don’t ban symbols of faith. We don’t muzzle preachers. . . . In America, we celebrate faith, we cherish religion, we lift our voices in prayer, and we raise our sights to the Glory of God. (Applause)
“In America . . . We raise our sights to the Glory of God.” Unless it is a devout Mormon senator, who “swore an oath before God to apply impartial justice.” Never mind that Republican Sen. Romney believed that he was raising his “sights to the Glory of God” in voting to remove Trump from office.
“In America, we don’t punish prayer.” Unless it is a practicing Catholic, leader of the House of Representatives, who said she prays for the president every day — because “he’s so off track.” No one dare pray that way for the self- assumed “very stable genius.” Such prayer indicates he is imperfect and in need of prayer, which is contrary to his narcissistic self-image. Thus at the Prayer Breakfast, after depreciating Sen. Romney’s act of conscience, Trump said to his faith-oriented audience, ”Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,” when they know that’s not so.” Here again he presumes to know other people’s motive — especially the “dishonest” motives of those criticizing him. A National Prayer breakfast where a certain kind of prayer was condemned.
“We don’t muzzle preachers.” A reported President Trump just muzzled the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, for testifying against him at Trump’s House of Representatives impeachment hearings. And, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the reported “decorated Iraq war veteran on the National Security Council staff,” who also testified against Trump, “was marched out of the White House by security guards.” (‘TRUMP HITS BACK, FIRING WITNESSES AFTER ACQUITAL,’ By Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, Danny Hakim and Michael S. Schmidt, The New Yprk Times, Feb. 8, 2020) Trump’s history is one of muzzling truth and threatening those who tell the truth.
President Trump continued his pretense at the National Prayer Breakfast: “At every stage, our nation’s long march for civil rights was inspired, sustained, and uplifted by faith, prayer, and devotion of religious believers.” (Ibid)
What “was inspired, sustained and uplifted” by the civil rights movement’s “religious believers?” President Trump doesn’t’ say. He makes no reference to the history of racism in America, or to specific discrimination and struggles for justice and equality. With civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday celebrated just three weeks before, Trump could have quoted King. Like, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy.” (“17 Inspiring Quotes by Martin Luther King Jr.,” www.biography.com)
But such an act of conscience is not where President Trump is at. When neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched on Charlottesville. VA in 2017, and one drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing Heather Heyer, President Trump said that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
At the Prayer Breakfast, it sounds good to make a generalized, religiously dressed, statement about “our nation’s long march for civil rights.” With President Trump in office, that “long march” got longer. According to “a new Washington Post-Ipsos poll . . . “83% of African Americans across the country believe President Trump is a racist and he’s exacerbated the country’s race problems while in office.” And “9 out of 10 disapprove of Trump’s overall job performance.” (“New poll: 83% of African Americans say Trump is a racist,” By Rashaan Ayesh, AXIOS, Jan,. 15, 2020)
In his National Prayer Breakfast speech, President Trump stated, “In everything we do, we are creating a culture that protects freedom, and that includes religious freedom. (Applause) . . . To protect faith communities, I have taken the historic action to defend religious liberty, including the constitutional right to pray in public schools. (Applause)” (“Remarks by President Trump at the 68th Annual National Prayer Breakfast,” Ibid)
“Protect[ing] . . . religious freedom” and “defend[ing] religious liberty” are code words for giving evangelical Christians’ the “right” to use The Bible as a weapon to discriminate against LGBTQ persons and deny their inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. It is not just about the authority of The Bible, but the authority select anti-homosexual passages of The Bible give to traditionalist Christians in their need to gain power over people and punish those judged to be biblical outcasts. Sadly, for many white evangelical Christians, faith is about right belief, not just behavior.
Pushing prayer in public schools may serve a similar discriminatory purpose. Reported is the Trump administration’s intent “to decrease the Education Department’s funding by $7.1 billion” in 2020. “The budget proposal suggests eliminating 29 programs, including after-school and summer programs for students in high-poverty areas, among other things.” While the proposal is unlikely to be approved, it shows “the Trump administration priorities” for 2020. (“Trump administration proposes $7.1 billion funding cut to Education Department,” By Sophie Tatum, ABC News, Mar. 11, 2019; see also “Trump’s $4.5 Trillion Budget Would Cut Safety Net Programs and Boost Defense,” by Jim Tankersley, Margot Sanger-Katz, Alan Rappeport and Emily Cochrane, The New York Times, Feb. 10, 2020)
President Trump’s priorities do not include economically disadvantaged students. A sleight of hand here of pushing prayer in public schools, while robbing students of programs that nourish mind, body and spirit. How much of that $7.1 billion could end up in the pockets, as tax breaks, for the wealthiest Americans?
The boasting in President Trump’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast was a far cry from Jesus’ teaching about prayer. Jesus compared the prayers of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee boasted about his own greatness and thanked God that “I am not like other people.” Conversely, the tax collector prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus ended with, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. ”(Luke 18: 10-14)
President Trump repeatedly exalted himself in a speech that was contrary to the spirit of a reflective and introspective prayerful gathering. Here are examples:
I don’t think anybody has done more than all of us together during these last three years. . . . On Tuesday, I addressed Congress on the state of the Union and the great American comeback. That’s what it is. (Applause)
Our country has never done better than it is doing right now. . . . According to the latest Gallup Poll . . . American satisfaction is at its highest level ever recorded. . . . In everything we do, we are creating a culture that protects freedom, and that includes religious freedom. (Applause) . . . We’re upholding the sanctity of life. (Applause). And we are doing that like nobody has ever done before in this position. . . . The best unemployment numbers in the history of our country. We’re doing things that nobody thought possible. . . . We are standing up for persecuted Christians and minorities all over the world — (Applause) – like nobody has ever done. . . . Certain Religions are under siege. . . . We are going to protect our religions [and] Christianity [and]great ministers and pastors and rabbis and all the people that we so cherish and that we so respect. . . . We want every nation to look up to us like they are right now. We were not a respected nation a few years ago. We had lost our way . Our country is respected again by everybody. (“Remarks by President Trump at the 68th Annual National Prayer Breakfast.” (Ibid)
President Trump also said to his Prayer Breakfast listeners. “God is with the people in this room.” (Ibid) In January, Trump, as reported, “told thousands of cheering evangelical Christians” at a political rally in Florida. “’We have God on our side.’” The rally was the day after he ordered the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an air strike. (“Trump tells evangelicals, ‘We have God on our side for 2020 election; hails end of Soleimani’s ‘bloody rampage,’” By Danielle Wallace, Fox News, Jan. 4, 2020) Trump professes a god who takes sides between people, rather than creates solidarity among people.
President Trump’s speech to the prayerful assembly was not only an exercise in self-aggrandizement; it was filled with delusional falsehoods. Such as, “Together, we are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society. We are lifting up citizens of every race, color, religion, and creed.” (“Remarks by President Trump at the 68th Annual National Prayer Breakfast,” Ibid)
What President Trump has been building are walls to keep Central Americans out and bans to keep Muslims from coming in. He is courting a base that includes white supremacists, and white Christians who believe in the supremacy of their evangelical Christian faith. In the face of this ethnocentrism and divisive religious supremacy, Trump even said, “We’re declaring that America will always shine as a land of liberty and light unto all nations of the world.” (Ibid)
The result is not an “inclusive society,” but a country divided. That divisiveness has intensified because of who Trump is: an authoritarian, devoid of empathy, and driven by an obsessive need is to gain power over people, and to punish those who disobey his dictates.
Another of President Trump’s falsehoods should have been met with a frown by his prayerful audience, but it was applauded. He said, “And we’re pursuing medical breakthroughs to save premature babies because every child is a sacred gift from God.” (Ibid) Not the Central American babies at the Mexican border, who, with their parents are seeking safety and freedom in the United States. Trump’s policy is to separate these families and put the children in cages. Nor does he think kindly of children from “shit-hole countries.” And if “every child is a sacred gift from God,” why, as reported, is the Trump administration proposing to cut food stamps for “about 2.2 million U. S. Households, or almost 4 million people?” (“Trump administration proposes $7.1 billion funding cut to Education Department,” By Sophie Tatum, abcnews.go.com, March 11, 2019) For political purposes, he believes in the sanctity of life before birth, but afterwards children are on their own.
Arthur Brooks, Harvard Kennedy School professor and author of the book Love Your Enemies, was a keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. Speaking right before President Trump did, Brooks told the audience that being tolerant of and civil toward others was not enough. He challenged his listeners to, “Love your enemies.” (“Love your enemies? Nah,says Trump,” by Daniel Burke, CNN, Feb. 6, 2020)
Up next, President Trump was evidently taken aback by Professor Brooks’ challenge. Trump referred to everyone gathered as “fighters,” who “like people. And sometimes they hate people. I’m sorry. I apologize,” he went on. “I’m trying to learn,” he added to laughter. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy,” which elicited applause. He then said, “When they impeach you for nothing, then you’re supposed to like them? It’s not easy, folks,” which provoked laughter. “I do my best,” which was met with applause. (“Remarks by President Trump at the 68th Annual National Prayer Breakfast,” Ibid)
A few days later Trump fired Lt. Col. Vindman and European Union Ambassador Sondland, for testifying against him at the House of Representatives impeachment hearings. He is reported to have “railed about those who stood against him, calling them “’evil,’ ‘corrupt,’ and ‘crooked,’ while his press secretary declared that those who hurt the president ‘should pay for’ it.” (‘TRUMP HITS BACK, FIRING WITNESSES AFTER ACQUITTAL, Ibid)
Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is “not easy” for President Trump, because his enemies list keeps growing and growing. One either accommodates his authoritarian demands, or is seen as an enemy to depreciate, bully and punish. Trump is incapable of responding with mutual respect, which is the basis for democratic give and take.
The National Prayer Breakfast provides a commentary on the people of faith who sat there and applauded and laughed as this lying con man put on a narcissistic and manipulative exhibition. It is sad indeed that no one had the courage to get up and leave in protest. Sad also that many American faith leaders still lack the courage to publicly render “impartial justice” in response to the great threat facing our country and the world: President Donald J. Trump.