In his appearance Wednesday at the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump once again upended the rules of the game. At an event where past presidents offered anodyne remarks about God, service, patience and humility, the new headman swore, threatened, boasted and raged.
Abraham Vereide is having the last laugh.
Vereide, a Methodist minister, began prayer breakfasts for the rich and powerful in 1930s Seattle. After years of serving the poor, Vereide decided that social change would more likely come from influencing politicians and businessmen. Vereide was so successful that he moved to Washington DC to set up prayer breakfasts for congressmen and other local leaders.
In 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, Vereide, his protégé Senator Frank Carlson, and evangelist Billy Graham sought the presidential imprimatur for the gatherings.
Entrepreneurial and eminently personable, Vereide was not a typical Methodist minister. A fundamentalist and a theocrat, he believed that strong Christians should rule, unions should be destroyed and likeminded men should quietly work for the Kingdom of God. To this end, he organized The Family (also known as The Fellowship), a group that Jeff Sharlet profiled in his 2009 bestseller, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
I don’t know if Donald Trump is part of this group. But I do know that his speech to the prayer breakfast was unlike any other and that, in its own peculiarly bombastic way, it was one step closer to Vereide’s vision of a Christian nation.
That’s because the heart of Trump’s speech was a defense of “religious liberty” that sounded a lot like protecting Christian—and specifically evangelical—lives and values by vitiating church/state separation and closing our borders to non-Christians.
Trump began this section of his speech paraphrasing Jefferson’s remarks on slavery “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” Trump reads Jefferson as sanctioning the “right to worship according to our own beliefs,” which, for Trump, translates as he (Trump) will “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”
The Johnson Amendment prohibits religious organizations from engaging in political campaigns. It has nothing to do with the freedom to worship.
Again invoking “religious liberty,” Trump pledged to work for “a tolerant society” where all feel “safe and secure.” To that end, he will “develop a system to help ensure that those admitted into our country fully embrace our values of religious and personal liberty.” Left unsaid is what exactly are “our” values of religious and personal liberty? If, as has been reported, Trump is readying an executive order that could curtail gay rights (on the grounds of religious liberty), intending his Supreme Court picks to overturn Roe v. Wade (again on religious grounds), and planning to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (desired by Christian Zionists) then will all of us who oppose these “values” find ourselves unwelcome?
Trump was elected for many reasons and by many people. But a large part of his success came from the support of white evangelicals. These evangelicals have voted for past presidents—Carter, Reagan, Bush 1 and 2—and were always disappointed. Despite lip service, their hallmark social issues went unaddressed.
Trump is addressing those issues with a rapidity and determination that many of us find shocking. He also is strong on evangelical economic and political concerns, including small government, reduced regulations, and putting America First.
When Eisenhower addressed the first Presidential Prayer Breakfast, as the event was called until 1970, he spoke about the importance of prayer and the generosity and sympathy that comes from a “deeply-felt religious faith.” His words were irenic, positive and uplifting.
Ike wanted a “Government under God,” the theme for that first prayer breakfast, and he sought it by adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to the currency.
If Ike wanted a Christian nation, he never said as much. But then again, he did not start a prayer breakfast by insulting an ex-governor, promising “vicious” confrontations against enemies and by extolling his own gifts.
Can I get an amen?