Civil Religion, Pancakes, and Politics

By Anthony John

In his second appearance at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump steered clear of partisan politics and focused on his belief in the country’s dependence on G-d. His claim that America is a nation of believers strengthened by the power of prayer emphasized a strong link between religious identity and government.

The 66th annual event, which drew more than 3,600 people to the Washington Hilton a couple weeks ago, was a time for prayer, speeches, and networking between religious and political leaders from scores of countries. Held in early February each year, the breakfast is sponsored by the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian organization also known as the International Foundation.

Additionally, it is co-hosted by Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate weekly prayer groups. The breakfast also paid tribute to one of its longtime organizers, Doug Coe, who passed away last year in late February, but had consistently emphasized the foundation’s focus on people-to-people relationships.

The president talked about the historical connection of Christianity to America, emphasizing G-d as the ultimate source of rights for all Americans. He cited mentions of G-d in the Declaration of Independence, the words “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, and the etching of “Praise Be to God” atop the Washington Monument.

He also laid out a vision of what it means to end threats to the U.S., stopping terrorism and ending the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, among others.

He highlighted that religious Americans feel threatened within the U.S., stating that he would repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment, a provision of the tax code which prohibits religious leaders and institutions endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would theoretically allow houses of worship and religious leaders to openly advocate for political candidates while retaining their tax-exempt status, while also allowing them to funnel religious donations into explicitly political efforts.

Nonetheless, Trump seems to be championing an agenda of religious nationalism, one that reflects his belief that America represents a set of values, rooted in the country’s religious identity.

While Trump did not explicitly campaign as a religious leader, at the prayer breakfast, he promoted himself as a defender of religious faith and touted the centrality of G-d to American civic life. Until now, his administration’s policies, such as rolling back the Affordable Care Act contraception mandate, appointing pro-life judges, and declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel, have all served to boost already strong support, especially among evangelicals.

It is worth noting that while the evangelical bloc has constantly praised the president’s actions, the prayer breakfast lacked one crucial factor: diversity. Previous administrations have made the National Prayer Breakfast a celebration of diverse religious leaders in the U.S., but Trump appeared to have hosted an exclusive VIP list that also represents his most popular base.

Despite this, nothing was said at the prayer breakfast which was a popular, evangelical agenda issue. He did not talk extensively about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or his attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment, but instead directed more of his talk to a common religiosity that manifests itself within the lives of all Americans.

Trump, both during his presidential run and now, has made clear that faith is central to American life and liberty. Perhaps all the religious support he has is based on his politics and not his personal piety.

Nevertheless, Americans must realize how certain political statements are not only derived from their respective theologies, but also how they are shaping American civic life and policymaking with each passing day.

About Anthony John 3 Articles
Anthony John is a second year Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) candidate at Harvard Divinity School. His studies focus on the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics, in addition to a newfound interest in corporate social responsibility. He is currently conducting independent research/writing focused on the religious dimensions of the triple bottom line (TBL - people, planet, profits) method used by many companies and firms. He is a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, Class of 2016.