President Donald Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning. After last year’s event, during which Trump ridiculed former California governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, cursed, made jokes about appointing a congressional chaplain and vowed to “totally destroy” the provision in federal law that bars houses of worship from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates, I was ready for anything.
But someone must have told Trump to dial it back this year. His speech was short, dull and devoid of policy proposals. Worse yet, his delivery had all the passion of a Soviet-era bureaucrat reciting a list of agricultural production figures. (Perhaps that was appropriate – there was reportedly a large delegation of Russians in the audience.)
Yes, most Americans are believers, but a growing number are not. Figures vary, but according to one recent survey, 34 percent of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
Trump did say one thing that caught my ear. He opened his speech with this statement: “America’s a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened by the power of prayer.”
Well, not really. Yes, most Americans are believers, but a growing number are not. Figures vary, but according to one recent survey, 34 percent of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
As for prayer, 23 percent of Americans say they seldom or never engage in that practice.
The reality is, Trump is the president of a nation of believers and non-believers. Would it hurt him to recognize that? It’s not hard for politicians to be personally religious yet still acknowledge that some Americans aren’t interested in being people of faith. President Barack Obama is a Christian yet when he spoke about faith, he often included non-believers when discussing the incredible range of religious and philosophical thought in the country.
The National Prayer Breakfast is a private event sponsored by a shadowy Religious Right group called the Fellowship Foundation (a.k.a. The Family). While the group usually includes a rabbi in the proceedings, the cast is overwhelmingly conservative Christian. The message sent isn’t subtle: A “real” American believes in God and prays.
Thus the event fails to represent the true breadth of religious and philosophical thought in America. Increasingly, it is a relic of the times that spawned it – the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. That was a time of “civil religion” – the phrase “In God We Trust” was made the national motto and “under God” was slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1956. (Nope, those were not George Washington’s ideas!) Much of this was a reaction to being locked in an ideological struggle with the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union.
Much has changed in America since 1956 – but the prayer breakfast hasn’t. Trump, who loves to play to his Religious Right base, will likely attend it every year he is in office. But at some point in the future, I’d like to see a president make a powerful statement by deciding to skip this breakfast.