It appears likely that President Trump will not continue the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, a tradition that began in 2010 under President Barack Obama where he would invite Christian leaders from across the country to join him for a service in the East Room of the White House. It would include singing, a sermon and prayers, and the president would discuss the significance of Easter for him.
Even today, it surprises many to hear that the president would speak so personally about Easter. In 2010, for instance, he reflected on the theological idea of redemption:
But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.
Fast forward to today’s White House, with a man who is undoubtedly one of the most religiously illiterate and thoroughly secular presidents in American history. Ironically, without the vote of churchgoing Christians, Trump would not be in the White House today.
To understand Trump’s election, we must first understand the role that faith played during Obama’s administration. In my recent book, “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in The Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America,” I walk readers through the successes, missteps and disappointments of the intersection of faith and Obama’s time in office. I also describe how some of Obama’s critics used religion dishonestly to score political points.
So far, we are still waiting for Trump to make important appointments related to faith. This dishonesty has become even more obvious after the opening days of the Trump administration, which has still not appointed a director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The office, which was created by President George W. Bush, is the one institutional office in the White House that has a specific mandate to partner with and serve as a resource to the faith community. Just weeks into his presidency, Obama announced his plans for the faith-based office at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he delivered remarks that spoke positively about the contribution people of faith make to this country.
Like many positions that still need to be filled, the faith-based office remains vacant, a lost opportunity to partner with faith-based groups and nonprofits and represent the policy views of diverse faith communities in internal policymaking discussions. Trump could name a qualified individual to lead the office today, and that person could start tomorrow since its director does not need to be confirmed by the Senate.
Those on the right have been using religion to criticize the White House for years. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney once accused Obama of seeking to “take God out of my heart,” and other Republicans suggested Obama was waging a “war on religion.” Obama was falsely accused of “ending the National Day of Prayer,” while in fact not only did he continue to recognize it, but his Department of Justice defended the day from a lawsuit from a secular activist and won.
Meanwhile, where is the breathless hand-wringing over Trump’s lack of church attendance? Weren’t we told he had a miraculous conversion experience in the run-up to the election?
One of Trump’s specific promises to Christian voters — repeated over and over — was that he would stand up for persecuted Christians around the world, and yet the first major test came on Palm Sunday and his administration was not prepared. Religious freedom was supposed to be a priority, but the Trump administration has failed to appoint anyone to the position of International Religious Freedom Ambassador.
The most immediate high-profile response to the bombing of two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday was a tweet from Trump, expressing his confidence that President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi would protect Egyptian Christians. Many Egyptian Christians do not share his confidence. With his tweet, Trump not only ignored their voices, but the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which in 2016 recommended Sissi’s Egypt as a Country of Particular Concern because of its failure to adequately uphold religious freedom and protect religious minorities (like Coptic Christians).
As I have written before, I understand the decision many Christians, particularly white evangelicals, made in 2016. Democrats made it clear they were not particularly interested in their votes, while Trump asked for them repeatedly.
But now that Trump is president, Christians who voted for him have a special responsibility to hold him accountable. Trump’s willingness to play political games with Americans’ health care and with the lives of refugees should be opposed by Christians who voted for Trump with all of the political leverage their status brings them.
If conservative Christians mute their criticism of Trump out of political loyalty, they may find themselves unable to find their voice again once he’s gone.
Which leads me to another question I’ve been asking this week:
Remember when Christians used to stand up to The White House?
Michael Wear is the author of the new book, “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.” He directed faith outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.