NEW YORK, N.Y. – The National Prayer Breakfast - a Washington tradition since 1953 - is by custom a respite from partisan bickering. President Donald Trump shattered that tradition Thursday with aggressive remarks that buoyed his allies but dismayed a wide spectrum of faith leaders.
“A bipartisan prayer breakfast is the last place one would expect to find political attacks on opponents,” said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, general manager of the conservative United Methodist magazine Good News. “Our country would benefit from a return to the kind of civility and grace reflected in Jesus’ words.”
Trump set the tone for his remarks even before speaking - holding up two newspapers with the headline “ACQUITTED” to herald the Senate’s vote Wednesday against removing him from office.
In a keynote address before Trump’s speech, Arthur Brooks, a Harvard professor and president of a conservative think tank, had decried a “crisis of contempt and polarization” and urged his listeners to ”love your enemies."
“I don't know if I agree with you,” said Trump. He then took a swipe at Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had cited his faith in becoming the only Republican to vote for Trump's removal.
“I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong," Trump said.
“Nor do I like people who say, 'I pray for you' when you know that is not so,” Trump added, in a reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has offered that message even as she led the impeachment effort.
Pelosi, a practicing Catholic, reiterated that she often prays for Trump.
“I pray hard for him because he’s so off the track of our constitution, our values, our country,” she said after the breakfast. “He really needs our prayers.”
One of Trump’s leading allies in the conservative Christian evangelical community, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the Southern Baptist megachurch First Baptist Dallas, embraced the president’s remarks.
“I think the president was completely right in what he said,” Jeffress said. “It’s not politically correct, but he didn’t get to be president by being politically correct.”
Jeffress, who said he dined with Trump and Prayer Breakfast organizers at the White House on Wednesday, said the criticism of Pelosi was justified.
“When you have been under nonstop attack for the last three years from people who want to destroy you and your family, it’s a little hard to hear them say, ‘I want to pray for you,’ ” he said. “It’s hypocritical.”
As for Romney, Jeffress contended that the senator’s decision to vote for Trump’s removal “seems more based on self-promotion than religious beliefs.”
Among Romney’s fellow Mormons in Utah, views were mixed.
“I don’t like that he’s the only member of the U.S. Senate on the Republican side who says, ‘I’m a man of God’ so he has to vote a certain way,” said former GOP legislator Mike Noel.
However, Emma Petty Addams, executive director of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, said Romney “really exemplifies the way faith can be used in the public sphere in a very positive way.”
The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice group Sojourners, took note of Trump’s assertion that faith should not be used as a justification for doing what someone knows is wrong.
"Apply this logic to Trump's white evangelical supporters: they are willing to trade off and even sell out Jesus for the reward of getting judges they like in the Supreme Court,” Wallis said via email. “Jesus taught us to welcome immigrants, to reject the use of racial bigotry, to avoid lying and to respect and love all people as they are made in the image of God.”
Professor Robert Franklin, who teaches moral theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, also evoked Jesus.
“If the president is feeling persecuted, he would be well served to spend quality time with his pastor while studying what Jesus did when he was persecuted,” Franklin suggested. “The religion of Jesus promotes the virtues of humility, self-accountability, forgiveness and reconciliation.”
A Conservative Jewish rabbi in Encino, California, Noah Farkas of the Valley Beth Shalom congregation, asserted that both Romney and Pelosi “are moved by their respective faith traditions.”
“I find it deeply problematic that the president uses the National Prayer Breakfast to lambaste the faith of his opponents,” Farkas said. ”He forgets the history of faith in this country, and disrespects others who speak from their sense of faithful conscience.”
At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia - where Trump ally Jerry Falwell Jr. is president - English professor Karen Swallow Prior said Trump’s breakfast remarks prompted her to reflect on how religious faith can be politicized.
“The problem with such statements is not Trump himself, but rather they reveal how American Christianity has become a kind of currency whose value depends on whose possession it’s in,” she wrote via email.
Toward the end of his remarks, Trump conceded that these issues of faith are not simple.
“I'm sorry. I apologize. I'm trying to learn. It's not easy,” he said. “When they impeach you for nothing and then you're supposed to like them, it's not easy folks. I do my best."
Associated Press reporter Lindsay Whitehurst contributed from Salt Lake City.