President Trump’s first appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast met awkward silence on Thursday as he began his comments by touting ratings when he was on "The Apprentice." Unpracticed in the public performance of piety, the candidate who was praised for “telling it like it is” made even his white evangelical base momentarily uneasy as he demonstrated the impotence of their religion to overcome his narcissism. Excused as a “baby Christian” during his campaign, the teen-like Trump continues to expose the hypocrisy of white evangelicalism.
As a preacher ordained to proclaim the message of Jesus, I know that the faith which embraces Trumpism is not my faith, nor is it the faith of many of my Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu colleagues. I do not doubt that it takes genuine belief to say, as Franklin Graham did, that Trump won the election last November because of a “God factor” for which the media and pollster could not account. But whatever you call that faith, it’s not mine.
Anyone who prays should be clear about what they really believe.
A century and a half ago, as he led the faith-rooted struggle against slavery in America, Frederick Douglass wrote, "Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked.”
This essential distinction was not reconciled following America’s Civil War. In some ways it became more rigidly defined, as the Ku Klux Klan adopted a fiery cross as the symbol of its hatred and white Southerners determined to erase the work of Reconstruction called their crusade the Redemption movement.
In response to such hypocritical religious extremism, the Social Gospel movement emerged in America to challenge corporate greed and, in some instances, systemic racism. Long before “What Would Jesus Do?” was a wrist bracelet, it was an evangelical challenge to child poverty, labor exploitation, and homelessness in early 20th century America.
But as Kevin Kruse has documented in his book, "One Nation Under God," the corporate leaders who were the heirs of plantation capitalism became frustrated by the Social Gospel’s influence on the New Deal. They wanted a religion that would affirm private property, individual responsibility, and laissez-faire capitalism. So they invested millions of dollars in organizations that would give them just that.
One of those organizations, known today as “The Family,” is the sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast. Funded by corporations and private family foundations, the annual event has gathered a bipartisan crowd since Eisenhower’s administration to invoke God’s blessing on America.
But conspicuously absent from those invocations have been faith leaders who continue in the tradition of Fredrick Douglass and the Social Gospel. While their memory may have been invoked on occasion, Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were never invited to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Trump's need to praise himself at a prayer breakfast might have passed as an awkward moment in civil religion if the actions of his first two weeks in office had not already inspired mass protests. But in the face of the moral outrage that millions of Americans feel, the awkward silence of so-called faith leaders as they listened to a braggart drone on about himself was revelatory. The President went on to say, essentially: the world is a mess. I'm here to fix it. The Bible has a name for this political position: idolatry.
The emperor had no clothes, but there wasn't a prophet in the house who was prepared, like the boy in the story, to point out the obvious.
But outside the Washington Hilton, on DC’s streets, moral witnesses stood vigil in solidarity with the millions who’ve gathered across this nation, in our airports and on our streets, to challenge President Trump in the prophetic tradition of Frederick Douglass. Many well-intentioned Christians objected. “Even if we disagree with some of his actions,” they asked, “doesn’t the Bible still instruct us to pray for our leaders?”
Not the Book of Jeremiah. “Don’t waste your time praying for this people,” God says to the prophet. “Don’t offer to make petitions or intercessions. Don’t bother me with them. I’m not listening.” Scripture is clear that there comes a time when religion that simply blesses injustice is heretical—an offense to the God who has made clear what true religion requires: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.
Earlier this week Donald Trump marked Black History Month by acknowledging that Frederick Douglass “has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Many laughed at the President’s apparent ignorance that Douglass died in 1896. But in light of the growing moral resistance in America, Trump may have misspoken prophetically.
It was, after all, Fredrick Douglass who said, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
God knows America needs our prayers. May we link arms and pray with our legs until the God of justice is as well known as the impotent faith of the National Prayer Breakfast.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is President of Repairers of the Breach. He is also Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, North Carolina and architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement.