President Donald Trump had a lot to say this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering in Washington, D.C., that is sponsored by the evangelical Fellowship Foundation and typically brings together the president, members of Congress and other dignitaries for a series of meetings and meals.
Perhaps most alarming was Trump’s vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that prohibits non-profit organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Allowing pastors to preach politics from the pulpit has become a cause celebre of the Religious Right, and as a result, for Trump as well. He brought it up a lot during the campaign, and this morning hit on it again.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump vowed this morning. “I will do that. Remember.”
Contrary to Trump’s claim, religious leaders may, as private citizens, speak freely about politics. They just can’t use the tax-exempt resources of houses of worship or other non-profits to do it. The Johnson Amendment helps to maintain the wall of separation between church and state, keeping government out of churches and churches out of government. And polls have shown most people don’t want to hear their clergy endorse candidates.
Other Trump comments didn’t seem entirely appropriate for the occasion – introductory remarks about the success of his reality show, “The Apprentice” (and taking another swipe at Arnold Schwarzenegger as his less-successful replacement); slipping in a mild curse; and dwelling repeatedly on beheadings come to mind as topics that may’ve been best left unsaid.
Trump did have much to say on topics relating to religion, spirituality and freedom, though some of it came across as lip service.
Less than a week after he signed an order that at least temporarily bans refugees from around the world and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, he spoke of the horrors people face at the hands of terrorists in some of the very countries from which he’s barred immigrants.
“We have seen peace-loving Muslims brutalized, victimized, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers,” he said. “All nations have a moral obligation to speak out against such violence. All nations have a duty to work together to confront it and to confront it viciously if we have to.”
But how well is the America working with other nations right now as reports surface of Trump engaging in combative phone calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico in the last week? Trump referenced those calls during the breakfast:
“The world is in trouble, but we are going to straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do. I fix things,” he said. “Believe me, when you hear about the tough telephone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it … We have to be tough ... We are taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
What a lovely message of diplomacy to show how we’re “working together” with allies.
Another comment that didn’t ring true was Trump speaking of “spiritual success” being more important to him than material success. This is coming from a man whose spiritual advisor is prosperity gospel preacher Paula White and who, even as he lauded faith, couldn’t help mentioning that he’s wealthy and knows “tremendous numbers” of others who are as well.
Trump also spoke of “our most vulnerable citizens” needing a path to success and, in reference to terrorists, “there are those who would seek to enter the country for the purpose of spreading violence or oppressing other people based upon their faith or their lifestyle. Not right. We will not allow a beachhead of intolerance to spread in our nation.”
But if the leaked draft on Trump’s potential executive order to legalize discrimination against the LGBTQ community and others in the name of religion comes to fruition, those “vulnerable citizens” could have more to fear from their own government than from any immigrant.
AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett wrote earlier this week on our Wall of Separation blog: “Any executive order that would permit LGBTQ discrimination would be indefensible. Taxpayer-funded discrimination in any guise is wrong. And discrimination imposed under the cloak of religious freedom actually undermines that fundamental liberty.”
Throughout his remarks, Trump referenced again and again America being a country of religious faith – a message that may’ve gone over well with his audience Thursday morning, but one that overlooks the fact that more and more people in the country now identify as non-religious.
“America is a nation of believers,” Trump proclaimed. “Freedom is a gift from God.”
He also praised the addition of the phrase “under God” to the pledge of allegiance: “Because that is what we are and that is what we will always be. And that is what our people want: One beautiful nation under God.”
Among his closing remarks was the statement, “America will thrive as long as we continue to have faith in each other and faith in God.”
At Americans United, we believe America will thrive as long as we continue to support and defend our constitutional freedoms, including religious liberty. I hope you’ll join us.