The National Prayer Breakfast is a massive ecumenical gathering put on annually by a group of Christians who want to focus on a shared admiration of Jesus. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the event, which draws several thousand people from around the world, especially evangelicals, who have proved strong supporters of the Trump administration.
At last year’s breakfast, Trump vowed to end the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the tax code that prevents nonprofit organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. It would take an act of Congress to repeal the measure, but attempts by Republican leaders to do so last year were unsuccessful.
This year Trump made no policy promises at the Washington Hilton gathering. His speech was also much more scripted than last year’s, in which he joked about how the ratings of Trump’s former reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” had fallen with former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Trump critic, as host.
This speech followed the line of previous presidents who highlight faith as a part of America’s history and tradition, but Trump spent the bulk of his speech telling stories of Americans who sacrificed for others.
“America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened by the power of prayer,” Trump said.
Trump noted that God is mentioned four times by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence. Our currency declares “In God We Trust,” he pointed out, and our Pledge of Allegiance states, “We are one nation, under God.”
The words “praise be to God” are etched on top of the Washington Monument, Trump noted, “and those same words are etched in the hearts of people.”
“Our rights are not given to us by men, our rights are given to us from our creator,” he said. “No matter what, no earthly force can take those rights away.”
In some ways, Trump’s speech fit the types of prayer breakfast speeches given by presidents in the past, said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College. Trump spoke about the role America has to play to create a more just world, an idea President Barack Obama would have promoted, as well.
“There are Christians both on the left and the right who see America as a force for good,” Fea said.
However, Trump went a bit further, he said, where American exceptionalism was implied. “This is something that gets the Christian right … very excited,” Fea said.
“We see the Lord’s grace,” Trump said, through acts of generosity and service from teachers, police and others who do good deeds. When Americans are able to live by their convictions to speak openly of faith, Trump said, “our nation can achieve anything at all.”
Trump’s message focused on the inspiring stories of people who have gone through struggle but held onto hope and faith. Trump highlighted the Islamic State’s torture of Christians, Jews, religious minorities and “countless Muslims.” He also noted the story of North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho who was badly injured and recently attended Trump’s State of the Union address. Trump said Ji would recite the Lord’s Prayer to keep from losing hope.
“Let us resolve to find the best within ourselves,” Trump said.
He hinted at a desire to “worship without fear,” a nod to religious freedom concerns, an issue that resonates with evangelicals, who have been particularly concerned about their personal freedoms.
In recent years, many evangelical leaders have shifted away from talk of a coalescing into a “moral majority” or taking back a Christian nation into a resigned acknowledgment of the loss of battles like same-sex marriage, according to Seth Dowland, an associate professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University. “The battleground has shifted to ‘We have to defend religious freedom,’ which they mean: a particular set of evangelical priorities,” Dowland said. Trump has seized on these concerns when he has advocated for things like a repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
“It ends up looking more like a special pleading for a particular type of Christianity or nationalism,” Dowland said. “You don’t hear the same tones of universal religious freedom from previous presidents.”
While Trump says things many evangelicals want to hear, he doesn’t weave in the kind of insider evangelical language George W. Bush was skilled at including in his speeches as president, Dowland said. Trump makes no secret of his lack of religiosity and rarely attends church, he notes.
“He pulls out religious messages when they seem advantageous to him, but it doesn’t strike me as a core feature of his rhetoric,” Dowland said. “Trump’s understanding of what Christians want is transactional, like a lot of things for him. This is what he thinks they want from him.”
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), who co-chaired this year’s breakfast and is an evangelical, said that Trump’s message likely resonated with many evangelicals in the audience, as well as people of other faiths. During Trump’s first year of office, Hultgren opposed Trump on his so-called Muslim ban attempt and his decision to reduce the number of refugees the U.S. has admitted.
“America still does need to be a place of refuge for people who are threatened and have no other place to go,” Hultgren said. “I think we can find a balance of being safe and being secure and also being a light on a hill.”
The keynote speaker Thursday was Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip who was shot in the hip last year in Alexandria, Va., during a practice for Congress’s annual charity baseball game. Scalise, who went through several surgeries and returned to Congress 15 weeks later, has said that the shooting gave him a “renewed faith.”
“It’s only strengthened my faith in God, and it’s really crystallized what shows up as the goodness in people,” he said in his first address to Congress after he returned in September. Scalise, who is Catholic, said that when he was lying on the field, the first thing he did was pray.
Several media reports earlier this week falsely suggested that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who has spoken about how faith helped him cope with a knee injury that cut his National Football League season short, was supposed to speak in place of Vice President Pence, who headed to Asia this week for the Olympic Games.
The National Prayer Breakfast is put on by the Fellowship Foundation, which was long run by Doug Coe, who died last year. Now the event is organized by a team of seven people who nominate about five potential speakers to congressional bipartisan co-chairmen who usually select the featured speaker, said Bob Hunter, a member of the foundation who has long helped with the breakfast.
The speeches are not supposed to be political, Hunter said ahead of the breakfast, but some speakers, including presidents, have made them so in the past.
“Each president presents a different set of problems,” Hunter said.
Some of the keynote addresses have drawn attention for politicizing the event. The most famous example, Hunter suggested, was when Mother Teresa, a nun and missionary in India, spoke forcefully against abortion in front of then-President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton, who support abortion rights. A speech that upset a lot of people, he noted, was from now-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who openly criticized Obama in front of him.
“People make speeches that are inappropriate. They can get political a little bit, but that always goes against what they’re asked to do,” Hunter said. “It’s very clear they are not to make it political.”
The committee that handles the prayer breakfast is made up of Protestants and Catholics, and members make a point of inviting people from different faiths to the event.
Past keynote speakers have included musician Bono; television producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey; and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Last year, the keynote speaker was Barry Black, the first African American and the first Seventh-day Adventist chaplain of the Senate.
This article has been updated since it was published with the contents of Trump’s speech and with quotes from historians.
Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.