In his address to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning, President Trump steered clear of policy and stuck instead to a spiritual theme: “America is a nation of believers,” he said.
Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has addressed the annual prayer breakfast, which is organized by Christians with the goal of preaching unity in faith across political divides.
At his first address to the breakfast last year, Trump made a policy promise — he said he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment that bans churches from endorsing political candidates, a promise he has partially fulfilled by executive order but Congress failed to carry out through legislation. He joked, too, about praying for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s TV ratings.
This year, Trump struck a different tone. His theme was the heroism of everyday Americans, including military and police, teachers, even a 9-year-old with a serious illness. Trump repeatedly emphasized evidence that that American spirit is based in religion.
The examples he gave from American history tell a more complex story — the centuries-long tale of how faith has intertwined with American institutions and how it has been kept apart.
The Declaration of Independence
“Each year this event reminds us that faith is central to American life,” Trump said. “Our founders invoked our creator four times in the Declaration of Independence.”
Indeed, the Declaration’s most famous sentence says men’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are “endowed by their Creator.” That is the only mention of a creator in the document; it also mentions once “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Those words were penned by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s relationship with God was far more complicated and interesting than the words of the declaration on their face might indicate.
Jefferson attended and contributed to churches throughout his life, according to researchers at Monticello. He also was influenced by deist writers, who suggested during the Enlightenment a God had created the world and set it in motion but did not meddle in its workings in the present.
“The phrase ‘Nature’s God’ is very much from the deists. That’s a popular deist phrase …,” said Catherine Brekus, who teaches American religious history at Harvard Divinity School. “These arguments, about whether the United States should have an explicitly Christian identity, I think have been part of American history from the beginning.”
Jefferson created his own Bible of sorts, in which he cut out Jesus’ moral teachings with a blade and discarded the miracles. A copy of this Godless version of the New Testament, known now as the Jefferson Bible, is on display at Washington’s new Museum of the Bible near the Capitol.
The motto on the money
Trump continued his speech on Thursday: “Our currency declares, ‘In God we trust.’ We place our hands on our hearts as we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and proclaim we are one nation under God.”
The phrase “in God we trust” first appeared on U.S. money during the Civil War. The Confederacy had just written its own Constitution, which stated outright that the Confederacy would be a Christian nation — something the U.S. Constitution never said — and Northern Protestant leaders felt the need to lay claim to religious authority, as well, Brekus said. They settled on adding religious language to money, Brekus said, after President Lincoln rebuffed an effort to amend the Constitution to say America is a Christian country.
“In God we trust” reappeared in 1956 when Congress voted to make it the national motto. Lawmakers have held the same vote again, just to reaffirm that it is still the motto of the country, in 2002, 2006 and 2011.
The motto has been challenged in court, leading judges to rule it is not actually an endorsement of religion — which could violate the First Amendment. Judges have called the motto a “reference to our religious heritage” that can “serve the secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions.”
One judge called the motto “a form [of] ‘ceremonial deism,’ protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because [it has] lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
The Pledge of Allegiance
When the pledge was written for schoolchildren in 1891 by Protestant pastor Francis Bellamy, it did not include the words “under God.” Bellamy said he aimed to encapsulate the “underlying spirit” of America in just 23 words. (He also had ideas that did not make it into the pledge about what “true Americanism” means — he railed against people he saw as “dull-witted and fanatical” immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, “which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard.”)
Eisenhower signed a law adding “under God” to the pledge in 1954, after he heard a Presbyterian minister preach in favor of the idea. Those two additional words were meant to signify America’s distinction from the Soviet Union, which was viewed as the godless menace of the time.
They have been controversial ever since — though courts have ruled on the side of public school students who do not want to recite the pledge, often because of the words “under God” or for any other reason, schools keep disciplining students for staying silent or seated. In the past few months alone, a Houston student says she was expelled and a Fairfax County student says his teacher yanked him from his seat. Last week, police said they were investigating a Colorado teacher accused of assaulting a middle-schooler who would not say the pledge.
Back to Thomas Jefferson one more time
After Trump’s address, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) talked at the prayer breakfast about his recovery after he was shot while practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game last year.
Scalise too spoke of the religious roots of the nation. “This was a nation not founded on agnostic views,” he said.
“You can’t separate church from state,” said Scalise, to cheers from the attendees. “This idea that you can just check your faith at the door: People say, ‘How do you separate your faith from the way you vote?’ Faith is part of who you are. . . . I would hope everybody brings a set of values rooted in faith when they’re making consequential decisions.”
Scalise, a Catholic, specifically cited Jefferson. He quoted the founding father’s words inscribed in the Jefferson Memorial: “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?”
What Scalise did not mention was that Jefferson was the foremost proponent of the separation of church and state, a separation Scalise just drew heavy applause for downplaying. In that memorial on the Tidal Basin, the adjacent quote is from Jefferson’s groundbreaking bill establishing freedom of religion in Virginia: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”
Jefferson encouraged free thinkers; he wrote to his nephew, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
This post has been updated.