In matters small and large, President Donald Trump has served notice that religion will play a significant role in how he carries out his duties.
His inaugural ceremony featured a record six clergy members taking part, rather than the usual one or two, and some of the more poetic passages in Trump’s speech were about the role of faith in our nation’s life.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2, Trump’s remarks took up thematically the question of faith and politics with a robust defense of religious liberty and an assertion that our rights and freedoms come from God.
Trump quoted Thomas Jefferson in saying, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”
According to Mark David Hall, professor of politics at George Fox University and author of “Faith and the Founders of the American Republic,” Trump’s remarks as a whole harkened back to the ways in which the nation’s founders discussed religion.
“It was very prevalent in the American founding that religious liberty or freedom of conscience is a gift of God,” Hall said. Trump’s remarks reminded Hall of George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. The letter “makes clear, religious liberty is a gift from God for all people in America.”
Patrick Garry, professor of law at the University of South Dakota law school, said Trump’s remarks were in the natural law and natural rights tradition. If our rights are given by God, then “there is a truth that transcends humanity.”
Gary Smith, professor of history at Grove City College and author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” said Trump’s remarks were in the mainstream of presidential speeches at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
Presidents typically use the prayer breakfast to speak about what their faith means to them, Smith said, or the role of faith in America, or the importance of faith’s role in addressing various problems, or to encourage support for particular policies.
Smith felt the context within which Trump defended religious liberty was significant. “We have a much more militant atheist community than before,” Smith said. The proposition that our rights come from God “is much more under fire than it ever has been in American history.”
In his speech, Trump finds a basis for national unity in God being a common creator: “We are all united by our faith in our Creator and our firm knowledge that we are all equal in His eyes. We are not just flesh and bone and blood. We are human beings, with souls.”
Garry sees in this invocation of God the creator a subtle rejoinder to doctrines that emphasize our differences. “The primary word we have fed on, particularly during the Obama administration, is diversity,” Garry said. “Here [Trump] is using religious faith as a matter of unity. That’s different.”
The theme of unity echoed Trump’s inaugural speech, when, for instance, he said, “And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.”
Protecting Religious Liberty
Hall believes that there is a significant difference between Trump’s praise of religious liberty and the tendency by the Obama administration to speak of freedom of worship.
“Many on the right … do think that religious liberty was threatened in profound ways under the Obama administration,” Hall said.
Freedom of worship protects what churches or clergy do, but it doesn’t extend to individuals. “If you are a small businessperson, a florist, a baker, a photographer, and you have a sincerely held religious objection … this right will not be protected.”
By vowing to defend religious liberty, “Trump is saying under his administration there will be an effort to protect people like that.”
At the prayer breakfast, Trump mentioned two policies drawn from his understanding of freedom of belief: repealing the Johnson Amendment and reforming immigration policy to protect religious tolerance in the United States.
The 1954 Johnson Amendment—named for its sponsor, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson—strips from religious or charitable organizations their tax exempt status should they endorse or oppose political candidates. Critics have charged the amendment denies religious and charitable groups freedom of speech and freedom of belief.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump advocated repeal of this law, and now he has put this on his agenda as president.
Regarding his plans for immigration, Trump said, “We will develop a system to help ensure that those admitted into our country fully embrace our values of religious and personal liberty, and that they reject any form of oppression and discrimination.”
Another instance of Trump’s emphasis on religious liberty occurred in his executive order on immigration, which specified that persecuted religious minorities should receive priority in appealing for refugee status.
The order has been criticized as being aimed at Christians who have suffered persecution in the Middle East.
In defending this provision, Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute notes in an article in Christianity Today that Christian refugees from Syria have been marginalized. The executive order will help this population, Shea notes, but it will also help “Rohingya Muslims from Burma, Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, Iraqi Yazidis, Iranian Baha’is, and Vietnamese independent Buddhists.”
Smith said that Americans need to take seriously a president’s rhetoric about faith, but cautions keeping a healthy skepticism, since such arguments may be stated mainly for their political benefits.
Garry finds something unusual in Trump’s remarks at the prayer breakfast. “I don’t think this is just politics,” he said. “I thought he would be like everyone else and modify everything he said earlier. I think this might be very sincere.”