It was a strange moment in U.S. religious history. The command to love your enemies, of course, came from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” It might be expected for a president to express how difficult obeying such a mandate can be. Trump decided to dispute the command itself. And some in the crowd laughed.
The purpose of Trump’s sermon at the Hilton was, in fact, to put his enemies on notice. Those who pursued impeachment were “very dishonest and corrupt people.” “They know what they are doing is wrong,” he continued, “but they put themselves far ahead of our great country.” Congressional Republicans, in contrast, had the wisdom and strength “to do what everyone knows was right.”
Trump proceeded to make a thinly veiled attack against Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Republican senator to vote for the president’s removal: “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” And then a shot at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ when I know that is not so.”
The rest of the speech alternated between pedestrian civil religion and Trump campaign riffs. The stock market is up. Do I hear an “amen”? Gallup personal satisfaction numbers are rising. Preach it, brother!
What did Trump accomplish in his 26 minutes or so at the podium?
First, the president again displayed a remarkable ability to corrupt, distort and discredit every institution he touches. The prayer breakfast was intended to foster personal connections across party differences. Trump turned it into a performative platform to express his rage and pride — the negation of a Christian ethic. Democrats have every right and reason to avoid this politicized event next year. And religious people of every background should no longer give credence to this parody of a prayer meeting.
Second, Trump has again shown a talent for exposing the sad moral compromises of his followers, especially his evangelical Christian followers. Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress and Eric Metaxas don’t have it easy after an event such as this one. Not only do they need to defend Trump’s use of a prayer breakfast as a campaign rally. Not only are they required to defend his offensive questioning of religious motivations. They must also somehow justify his discomfort with a central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and his use of a prayer meeting to attack and defame his enemies. These evangelical Christian leaders will, of course, find some way to bless Trump’s sacrilege. But he makes their job ever harder and their moral surrender ever more obvious.
Third, Trump’s unholy outburst (and the White House event that followed) shows we are reaching a very dangerous moment in our national life. The president is seized by rage and resentment — not heard on some scratchy Watergate tape, but in public, for all to see and hear. He now feels unchecked and uncheckable. And he has a position of tremendous power. This is what happens when a sociopath gets away with something. He or she is not sobered but emboldened. It took mere hours for Republican senators who predicted a wiser, chastened president to eat their words. The senators are, in part, responsible for the abuses of power to come.
And they are not alone. At the prayer breakfast, some cheered and whistled for Trump’s bitterness and vindictiveness. Many evangelical Christians seem attracted to the least Christian elements of his appeal — his anger and his cruelty. They are encouraging the president to fight an enemy they have ceased to love.
If this is what the National Prayer Breakfast has become, it has ceased to be religious, ceased to be useful and ceased to be necessary.