WASHINGTON – On the first Thursday of every February, religious dignitaries, politicians, and other guests are invited to Washington, D.C. to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast. It is sponsored by the Christian organization called The Fellowship Foundation and has been an American tradition since 1953.
This year was no exception. On Feb, 2. President Trump attended his first breakfast, held at the Washington Hilton. During that morning event, Trump addressed the crowd, saying: “America is a nation of believers. In towns all across our land, it’s plain to see what we easily forget — so easily we forget this, that the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.” [i]In those words, he defines U.S. society by a specific standard of religiosity: we are believers and we must remember that fact. The language corresponds with the administration’s ongoing branding effort to Make America Great Again – a slogan built on two assumptions: America is not great now, and America was great at some point in the past.
Together with the embedded religious rhetoric, which is exemplified in Trump’s words noted above, the administration’s marketing campaign has created a uniquely American cocktail containing a mixture of religion and nationalism with a hearty splash of undefined romantic nostalgia.
In the prayer breakfast speech, Trump suggests that, as Americans, we must remember a time when religious pursuits preempted the consumerist impulse. While many may agree with this feel-good statement, it can appear ironic coming from an American real estate tycoon who, during the same annual religious event, asked for prayers to boost the ratings of a reality television program of which he’s still listed as the executive producer.
That aside, it is this very style of religious rhetoric that is thriving in the current political scene, and even tipping the balance of power.
Later in that same speech, Trump talks about the importance of religious freedom and its enemies. He says: “We have seen peace-loving Muslims brutalized, victimized, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people. We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians, where they cut off heads.”
In these sentences, he acknowledges the multi-faith world more than in other speeches and tweets, and he even hints at the complexities of religious politics with regard to global terrorism. However, at the end of his speech, he returns to the idea of America being defined as a “nation of believers” using an even more specific religious framework. He says:
America will thrive, as long as we continue to have faith in each other and faith in God. It’s that faith that sent the pilgrims across the oceans, the pioneers across the plains and the young people all across America, to chase their dreams. They are chasing their dreams. We are going to bring those dreams back. As long as we have God, we are never, ever alone. Whether it’s the soldier on the night watch, or the single parent on the night shift, God will always give us solace and strength, and comfort. We need to carry on and to keep carrying on.
President Trump’s words draw on romantic notions of Americana as defined within culturally-specific and idealized notions of religiosity, saying “we will bring those dreams back” again. This is where that splash of nostalgia is evident.
At the end of his speech, Trump says: “For us here in Washington, we must never, ever stop asking God for the wisdom to serve the public, according to his will.” That final statement flirts dangerously close to the establishment clause, begging the question as to whether it is actually a violation.
But Trump is not alone in that danger zone. Since the inception of the National Prayer Breakfast, presidents have had to walk an uneasy line between religious expression (personal or otherwise) and the establishment clause in their annual talk. It has been questioned whether the breakfast tradition itself, supported by an evangelical organization, is even constitutional at all.
However, it is important to note that the First Amendment doesn’t forbid public religious practice. As TWH columnist Clio Ajana said, “To say that one prays does not mean that an individual is a monotheist and that prayer is the dominion of such traditions. Prayer is for all of us.” However, that inclusive ideal and its actual manifestation in American political culture may not always line up.Well before our current era, America’s elected officials have pushed the legal boundaries between religion and politics, in speeches and policy-making. For example, in a 1799 presidential proclamation recommending a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer, John Adams said:
It is […] most reasonable in itself that men who are made capable of social acts and relations, who owe their improvements to the social state, and who derive their enjoyments from it, should, as a society, make their acknowledgments of dependence and obligation to Him who hath endowed them with these capacities and elevated them in the scale of existence by these distinctions. [ii]
President Adams’ dream of a National Day of Prayer didn’t last; nor did the second attempt by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It wasn’t until 1952 that the current National Day of Prayer was formally signed into law under the Truman administration.
One year later, the National Prayer Breakfast was established. Like the newly-created day of prayer, the breakfast was one of the more visible outcroppings of the intersection between religion, specifically Abrahamic in nature, and American politics.
The birth of the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, as it was called then, was actually part of a larger religious revival propelled by newly-elected president Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a Smithsonian Magazine article titled “History of the National Prayer Breakfast,” journalist Diane Winston writes, “Soon after his election in 1952, Eisenhower told [famed Southern Baptist minister and evangelist Billy Graham] that the country needed a spiritual renewal. For Eisenhower, faith, patriotism and free enterprise were the fundamentals of a strong nation. But of the three, faith came first.”
Eisenhower was the first president to attend the breakfast established by The Fellowship Foundation. According to Winston, Eisenhower was initially wary about attending, but he was reportedly convinced to go by Rev. Graham. In his 1953 speech at that breakfast, Eisenhower concluded, “All free government is firmly founded in a deeply-felt religious faith.”
With this in mind, it is not surprising that, two years later in 1954, the words “under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance. And, two years after that, the 84th Congress backed by President Einsenhower made “in God we trust” the national motto.
Of cocktails and witch-hunts
While political shifts are always complicated and rife with ideological competition manifesting in changing legislation, historians often attribute this so-called spiritual revival to the coming Cold War and the growing fear of communism. It was in 1950 at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday that Joseph McCarthy gave his famous Wheeling Speech. McCarthy defined the U.S. in religious terms:
Can there be anyone who fails to realize that the communist world has said, “The time is now” – – that this is the time for the showdown between the democratic Christian world and the communist atheistic world? Unless we face this fact, we shall pay the price that must be paid by those who wait too long. [iii]
While the the term “God” used by Eisenhower’s legislation can be justified as being generally Abrahamic, McCarthy employed far more specific religious language. Capitalizing on a social fear, he dangerously defines political lines of “good and bad” within religious terms; thereby tying global politics to a deeply personal experience. He deftly equates nationalism to religious belief in order to influence political opinion and the general population. On the side of good was Christianity, America, and democracy. On the side of evil was atheism, the Soviet Union, and communism.In that speech, McCarthy went on to say: “At [World War II’]s end we were physically the strongest nation on Earth and, at least potentially, the most powerful intellectually and morally.” Later in the Wheeling speech, he references the 1947 conviction of State Department official Alger Hiss for treason:
The reaction of the American people to this would have made the heart of Abraham Lincoln happy. When this pompous diplomat in striped pants, with a phony British accent, proclaimed to the American people that Christ on the Mount endorsed communism, high treason, and betrayal of a sacred trust, the blasphemy was so great that it awakened the dormant indignation of the American people.
The spark of morality, as he said, was rekindled. This is, once again, an appeal to nostalgia. It recalls time when America was supposedly “the most powerful,” “the strongest nation,” the smartest, and the most moral.
During the trials, McCarthy went on to assert himself as a key part of the solution to the presented social problem. As seen in the Wheeling speech, he made claims that he alone possessed proof of “57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy.”
While McCarthy’s work eventually proved to be inaccurate and what we might now call ‘fake news,’ it did lead to several years of HUAC hearings and the famous political witch-hunts. Interestingly, the final hearings in 1954 were televised, which reportedly led to a public outrage against McCarthy and his methods. It can be speculated that the popularization of this new visual medium, and the resulting wide availability of source material as it were, helped to end of the HUAC trials and hunts.
As a side note, it was near the end of those trials that the recently debated Johnson Amendment was enacted changing the tax codes to prevent nonprofit organizations from influencing legislation and election processes. Lyndon B. Johnson, then a senator from Texas, was allegedly concerned about the above-mentioned growing conservatism, the anti-communist sentiment, and the rise of McCarthyism.
Some historians speculate that Johnson’s push for the tax code change was simply a personal political move, targeting his own opponents who had backed the HUAC hearings; others say it was an attempt to silence any nonprofit organizations participating in anti-communist political war mongering and ‘cold war’ propaganda. It may have been both.
Either way, most agree that Johnson’s proposal of the code change was not meant as a move against religious bodies or so-called attempts at a religious revival. In other words, the enactment of the code was not a result of religious freedom concerns.
The morning after hangover
During this not-so-distant past, there were many politicians who, like McCarthy, were advocating for a strong nationalism as a means of protection from foreign enemies during a time of growing global fear, and this surge of nationalism was neatly wrapped in religious rhetoric attributed to America’s great past. It is a cocktail from which America has still not fully recovered.
The tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast comes out of that time, as do the other religious components still resident in our contemporary American cultural experience, such as the pledge of allegiance and the motto.However, it is important to note that there are other politically-based social traditions that are intertwined with similar religiosity, but were not born in that 1950s time frame. The White House Christmas tree lighting began in 1923. Irving Berlin wrote the famous song “God Bless America” in 1918. From the presidential inauguration ceremony to the patriotic songs commonly sung, religious language finds itself in many places. In fact, written into the end of every presidential proclamation at least over the past 150 years is the statement:
“IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this second day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand seventeen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-first.”[iv]
Much of this religious language is so well embedded into America’s systems and cultures that it is largely accepted and ignored, being challenged only periodically by religious freedom organizations.
Making America something again
Beyond words and the draperies of yesteryear, religion-based rhetoric continues to provide momentum for the newly-elected administration, stirring controversy from the cabinet selections to the executive orders. The immigration ban, for example, is now called “the Muslim ban” and is being challenged in court on the premise that it violates the establishment clause.
While Trump has claimed that the ban is regional and not religious, he has also reportedly been quoted by the The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) saying that he would prioritize Christian refugees: “We are going to help them. They’ve been horribly treated.” As such, political lines of good and bad are being defined along religious lines, connecting global politics to the deeply personal.
Trump’s pre-election talks and speeches only serve to support that point. In spring 2015, Trump told CBN journalist David Brody: “Believe me: If I … win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians that they’ve had in a long time.” Later that October, he reportedly told Iowa supporters,“I’m a good Christian […] If I become president, we’re gonna be saying merry Christmas at every store …you can leave happy holidays at the corner.”
Furthermore, in his book Crippled America, published that same year, Trump illustrates the overall concept with the statement:“The belief in the lessons of the Bible has had a lot to do with our growth and success.That’s our tradition, and for more than 200 years it has worked very well.” (p. 132)
In contemporary America, it is a fear of terrorism or maybe something else entirely different, rather than communism, that is fueling the connection being made between nostalgic greatness, nationalism, and religion; in this case, Christianity.
However, similar to McCarthy, Trump is setting himself up as the great protector with the solution. In the Feb. 2 prayer breakfast speech, Trump says, “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out. Okay? That’s what I do. I fix things. We’re going to straighten it out. (Applause.) Believe me. When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.”The religious rhetoric floating alongside and within the administration’s overall branding of a nostalgic nationalism seems to be working, if we are to look at the numbers. It is this branding that reportedly led to 80% of white evangelicals and born-again Christians to vote for him in 2016. Make America Great Again. [v]
It is under this marketing banner that President Trump hangs his hat, and even created his hat if you will, to serve up that unique and powerful cocktail of nationalism, religion and nostalgia.
Who drinks the cocktail, and how it will affect the future of American politics is still yet to be seen? How will the resultant actions, based upon the binding of those elements, resonate and manifest at the grass roots level in terms of true religious freedom for all, including and especially those Americans who do not fit the “nation of believers” model being touted?
[i] The entire speech is available on the White House web site.
[ii] Adams, John. Proclamation—Recommending a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer. The American Presidency Project.
[iii] The entire text of the Wheeling Speech is available at Digital History.com.
[iv] Quote pulled from President Donald J. Trump Proclaims February as American Heart Month <www.whitehouse.gov>. All presidential proclamations end with these words dating back as far as the mid 1800s.
[v] “2016 Exit Polls.”The New York Times <www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/exit-polls>