Abolishing Civil Rights at the National Prayer Breakfast

President Trump delivers remarks at last year's National Prayer Breakfast on February 8, 2018 (Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

During this year’s National Prayer Breakfast held on February 7, 2019, President Trump proclaimed, “Since the founding of our nation, many of our greatest strides, from gaining our independence to abolition of civil rights to extending the vote for women, have been led by people of faith.” While this gaffe could be attributed to a teleprompter blip, his speech clearly favored a religious right agenda that does, in fact, seek to abolish civil rights to those who are not part of this biblical bubble.

Throughout his address, Trump serenaded his white evangelical base in advance of the 2020 elections by promising them, “I will never let you down.” Later in his speech, he solidified his commitment to advancing the religious right’s sociopolitical agenda:

As president I will always cherish, honor, and protect the believers who uplift our communities and sustain our nation to ensure that people of faith can always contribute to our society. My administration has taken historic action to protect religious liberty.

Proclaiming that those in the room were “united by a shared belief in the glory of God and the power of prayer,” the president never acknowledged by name the presence of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is certainly a prayer proponent—she even prays for the president—if not exactly united with him.

At his State of the Union (SOTU) address just two days prior, Trump played to his faith base by highlighting his work advancing key evangelical stances on abortion, Israel, and immigration. He didn’t denounce late-term abortions at the breakfast as he did at the SOTU, but, as Jack Jenkins at Religion News Services observed,

Trump lifted a line directly from his [SOTU] address when highlighting his anti-abortion stance. “All children, born and unborn, are made in the holy image of God,” he said, sparking one of the loudest applause lines of the morning.

When Trump praised Karen Pence for returning to teaching art classes at a Washington, DC, Christian school, his supporters knew he was signaling to them that he approved of their anti-gay agenda. (As is now common knowledge, Immanuel Christian School in Northern Virginia has discriminatory policies against LGBT employees and students that effectively ban them from employment or attendance at this school).

Similarly, his shout-out to Chad and Melissa Buck, a couple from Michigan who adopted five children and attended the breakfast, made it clear that he supports the rights of faith-based adoption agencies that get state funding to discriminate against same-sex couples looking to adopt: “Unfortunately, the Michigan adoption charity that brought the Buck family together is now defending itself in court for living by the values of its Catholic faith.” No doubt Trump has mastered the language conservative Christians want to hear: “My administration is working to insure that faith-based adoption agencies are able to help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.”

With Maria Butina in custody, the Russian connection present during the 2018 breakfast wasn’t on display at this year’s. Journalist and author Jeff Sharlet documented last year how this breakfast offers foreign lobbyists direct access to the highest levels of power in DC. In describing the Family (aka The Fellowship Foundation), which has hosted the Prayer Breakfast since 1953, Sharlet characterized the group (of which Vice President Mike Pence is a member) as “an intensely powerful organization, whose specific vision of Jesus as the ideal ‘strongman’ governs their political theology and who have found, in strongman-sympathetic President Trump, an ideal vessel for their beliefs.”

While Twitter lit up with jokes that Trump had finally told the truth with his remark about the Christian agenda stripping away civil rights, Spin’s review of the breakfast noted that “Trump seemed to enjoy it about as much as you’d expect from a narcissist who has the attention span of a mosquito.” In the spirit of PT Barnum, Trump clearly knows the issues he needs to highlight in order to appease his supporters. In comparison, Pence sat at rap attention with the prayer posture of a true believer.

Pence may pray as Trump preys, but regardless of their personal beliefs, both men continue to advance an agenda that threatens the civil rights of large swaths of the American populace. And this includes those of minority faiths, atheists, humanists, agnostics, and the religiously unaffiliated.