Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast

Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast February 11, 2018

Last Thursday morning, the President tweeted the following:

Will be heading over shortly to make remarks at The National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Great religious and political leaders, and many friends, including T.V. producer Mark Burnett of our wonderful 14 season Apprentice triumph, will be there.

“This ought to be good,” I thought, in the same way that a multiple-car crash on the interstate is “good.”

This is not the first time that the annual prayer breakfast and “The Apprentice” have strangely melded in Trump’s imagination. Last year at his first prayer breakfast, the newly inaugurated President opened by wistfully noting that leaving “The Apprentice” was “when I knew for sure I was doing it”—“it” being the Presidency. He followed by noting how spectacularly unsuccessful his replacement, movie star and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, had been.

And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It’s been a total disaster . . . And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, okay?

And have a nice breakfast.

Truth be told, Trump’s remarks at the breakfast last Thursday turned out to be a disappointment for those hoping for the latest random, off-the-wall, totally offensive Presidential sound bite. It also was a disappointment for anyone expecting that something thoughtful or insightful might be said about prayer or faith. For those, however, who can’t get enough of American exceptionalism, “We’re #1,” and a Christian nationalism built around the conviction that God likes us best, it was a speech straight out of central casting. A few highlights:

  • Faith is central to American life and to liberty. Our founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence. Our currency declares, “In God We Trust.” And we place our hands on our hearts as we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and proclaim we are “One Nation Under God.”
  • Our rights are not given to us by man, our rights come from our Creator . . . That is why the words “Praise Be To God” are etched atop the Washington Monument, and those same words are etched into the hearts of our people.
  • So today, we praise God for how truly blessed we are to be American.
  • So today, inspired by our fellow citizens, let us resolve to find the best within ourselves. Let us pray for that extra measure of strength and that extra measure of devotion.
  • As long as we open our eyes to God’s grace and open our hearts to God’s love, then America will forever be the land of the free, the home of the brave, and a light unto all nations.

The President’s speech writer gave him all sorts of red meat to throw to his base, as well to those who like their prayer and faith seasoned with assurances that we are God’s favorites, God’s most recent “chosen people.” And he threw the meat effectively.

There are all sorts of ways to push back, of course, starting with pointing out that the word “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence and the word “God” on our currency and on top of the Washington Monument refer to an impersonal and shadowy Deist God, a divinity so different from what those obsessed with Christian exceptionalism imagine their pet Deity to be as to be unrecognizable. But as a college professor, I know that history lessons and textual analysis tend to have little impact on what people choose to believe. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see, until someone or something jars us into awareness. Trump’s National Prayer Breakfast remarks last Thursday left me longing for just such a jarring occasion.

In the eight years of his Presidency, President Obama often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He didn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounded more like a request or prayer when he said it than a command or expectation. At the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, during a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, President Obama managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. Almost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And we don’t enjoy having it pointed out that we have seldom, if ever, lived up to the hype.

The reaction to President Obama’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. Didn’t this guy get the memo that we are the best and God likes us more than anyone else? The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”

And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the former President’s remarks. Just saying.

I can’t honestly say that I found the current President’s remarks last Thursday offensive either. They didn’t rise to that level. Instead they inspired the worst of all possible responses—a yawn and a “Whatever.” The trope of American specialness tangled with the smug superiority of Christian exceptionalism is so overused and overpromoted that it has become virtually meaningless and entirely boring.

The role of President does include being “Cheerleader-in-Chief,” but just as I tire of seeing and hearing fans and cheerleaders at sporting events shouting “We’re #1” with the index fingers raised, even though their team might be on a losing streak or in last place, I also tire of our refusal to look at ourselves honestly. Sometimes we need to hear that “we often have dropped the ball, and we can do much better.” But try putting that on a bumper sticker.

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