I thought I’d gotten President Trump’s performance at the National Prayer Breakfast out of my system with Thursday’s post to Ordinary Time. I think of him as basically an insult comedian — like Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, but smug and vindictive in a way that a professional actor couldn’t get away with — and if he trivialized the prayer breakfast with his insults, well, Trump trivializes almost everything he touches.
Here’s how he did it. Riffing off of an opening homily by Arthur C. Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies, Trump wisecracked “I don’t know if Arthur’s going to like what I’m going to say,” and doubled down on “some very dishonest and corrupt people,” whom he did not name, and added, “nor do I like people who say ‘I pray for you’ when they know that is not so.” Jack Jenkins, who covered the event for Religion News Service, explained the insult was directed at U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But he didn’t have to. Everybody in the room knew it, and many of them yukked it up at Trump’s boffo laugh lines.
I was inclined to let all of this stuff pass. Journaling once was enough. But some of the reaction was thoughtful, and it went beyond calling out Trump for his boorishness and what Washington Post columnist (and evangelical Protestant) Michael Gerson called his “remarkable ability to corrupt, distort and discredit every institution he touches.”
So, as much as I’d like to move on, I think it’s worth taking a second look.
Especially thought-provoking was a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show hosted by Joe Scarborough and Nika Brzezinski. I don’t normally look for spiritual guidance from TV talk shows, but I thought historian — and frequent commentator — Jon Meacham nailed it when he said Trump’s antics showed the wisdom behind the separation of church and state:
The initial meaning of the wall of separation between church and state was not initially about protecting the state from the church, but the church from the state. The ancient thinkers worried about this. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island; worried about this; Richard Hooker, the Anglican divine, worried about this, that if the wilderness of the world were allowed to encroach on the garden of the church, that it would become corrupt. Well, guess what? They were right.
Meacham, a former editor-in-chief of Newsweek in its glory days and author of biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George H.W. Bush, also called for “a kind of Christian-inspired resistance to this will to power that has taken control over our politics now.”
Meacham had more to say about it, and I want to get back to him in a minute. But other public figures also weighed in on the prayer breakfast. One was Fr. James Martin, S.J., editor of America magazine. His reaction, which he shared on Facebook, is worth quoting in full:
The President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast was disgusting. Self-serving, mean-spirited and targeting his “enemies,” it was the opposite of prayer.
At the heart of the believer’s relationship with God is a profound humility before the Lord. And at the heart of the Christian’s relationship with Jesus Christ is a profound reverence for his teachings, including “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). And the last place that one should flaunt one’s vanity or ignore Jesus’s teachings is in the setting of prayer.
Catholic leaders should boycott this event in the future if it continues in this vein. Because it is no longer the occasion for prayer with the President, and is no longer prayer in any meaningful way, but is an exercise in spite, contempt and vanity.
I think it’s significant that the criticism came from people of different faith traditions and political perspectives. Gerson was named as one of Time magazine’s “25 most influential evangelicals in America” when he was a speechwriter for President George Bush in 2005. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of several books on spirituality. Scarborough brought up his religious background on MSMBC, after reading the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that Trump turned into a comedy shtick:
Yesterday was a dark day, not only in the history of this country but in the history of the modern evangelical movement. Because I heard nobody — nobody that supported Donald Trump — stand up for the words of Jesus Christ. Here I am — I’m a guy that’s been divorced twice, a guy that’s a backslidden Baptist, and I’m having to do this? Where are the religious leaders of the day?
Meacham, a regular on Morning Joe who said he is an “imperfect Episcopalian (which is redundant),” said he didn’t want to be judgmental but suggested that some leaders signed on with Trump in order to get federal judges who will rule their way on cultural issues.
“They’re violating a commandment in the psalms, to ‘put not thy trust in princes’,” he said.
But Meacham, who has also written a book titled The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, said the answer is not to divorce religious values from politics:
I think that the central point of the role of religion in politics is to be not a dominant force but an informing one. That’s one of the great insights of the American experiment, that you can’t banish religion from the public square. So you have to manage it and marshal it.
That’s a question I wrestle with. I think I’m clear enough about the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Even when I taught in a college that had crucifixes on the wall, we didn’t push religion in the classroom. (I wasn’t even a Catholic, and most of the kids who went to parochial high schools — Catholic, Lutheran and evangelical alike — felt like they’d had enough of that to last them a while. It wasn’t an issue.)
… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. (Again, it just wasn’t an issue. I can’t recall ever sitting down and reading the faculty handbook, but I’m sure it was in there.) And I wouldn’t have tried to push my personal values — which are at best a mixed bag of Lutheran, 12-step, Catholic, childhood Episcopalian, beat generation Buddhist and pop psychology — on my students, either. They knew when to take me with a grain of salt, anyway.
But when does religion-in-politics get to be too-much-religion-in-politics?
I think it’s a fair criticism that some anti-abortion activists, for instance, want to enlist the coercive power of the state to enforce one theological belief over another. But what about the Jewish activists of the Never Again Action movement who believe the Trump administration’s detention camps are preludes to a new Holocaust? What about my belief that Matthew 25 means something, that we should feed the poor and shelter the stranger? How, to use Meacham’s words, should our faith inform our action in the public square?
On the Morning Joe show, Meacham suggested there is a way. Thinking aloud, and choosing his words as he went along, he suggested it is imperative that people of faith reclaim the public square, especially in Donald Trump’s America. He said:
I wonder [if] the culture that Trump embodies, and now perpetuates, is the reason we need more religiously inspired values in the public square. The religiously inspired values of grace, generosity, humility, [of knowing] “I may not have all the answers.” What Reinhold Niebuhr called the “sad duty of politics” to establish justice in a sinful world.
As a historian, Meacham said there is ample precedent in the Civil Rights movement for precisely that kind of religiously inspired movement. “Our best moment, arguably, as a country — from abolition forward — was the 1960s, in the sense of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the end of Jim Crow.” And as a Southerner who went to the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., and now teaches at Vanderbilt, he shared the moment with Scarborough, who went to ‘Bama and hails from Pensacola, Fla. He said:
Jim Crow would not have ended in our common native region, Joe, without the Christian church. The Christian church offered a critique — “Love your enemies” — that found expression through Gandhi. But the central insight — go look at Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King, the Montgomery [bus boycott] story. It is how the Sermon on the Mount redeemed America’s sins. With John Lewis and the heroes of that movement. I wonder if we don’t need to recover the idea of that kind of Christian-inspired resistance to this will to power that has taken over in our politics now.
Could be. I know I’d sign up.
Perhaps the last word went to TV personality Donny Deutsch, who is also a regular on Morning Joe. A marketing and branding professional when he isn’t on camera, he noted that Trump’s approval rating is at an all-time high — and said it isn’t enough to blame the politicians and church people. Trump is a symptom of what has to be corrected, but — for once — it isn’t all about Trump:
I always thought I kind of understood people — I do it for a living. But I don’t understand the humanity, the sense of self that allows them to look in the mirror. And take that even broader, as we see in the Gallup Poll, that 49 percent of this country, half this country thinks Trump is doing a good job. We have to start looking in the mirror, as a country. We can no longer just point to that guy. There is really in play right now the soul of who we are. We can’t make it about him. Now it’s about us. Now. It. Is. About. Us.
To which I say, (no doubt thoroughly mixing up church and state): Amen, brother.