In the afterglow of an impeachment acquittal and coming off a State of the Union address that fit the model of reality TV spectacle, President Donald Trump delivered remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Following a prayer by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that called on listeners to live a life where “the names of the persecuted always live on our lips” and a call by Dr. Arthur Brooks to remember the biblical imperative to “love your enemies,” the President took a more combative stance referring back to Brooks and saying, “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you. But I don’t know if Arthur is going to like what I’m going to say.” By invoking an angrier God than is typical at this particular event, President Trump moved decidedly into an imprecatory mode.
Imprecatory psalms are prayers for damning and cursing of one’s enemies. The most frequently invoked psalm of this sort over the last few years was Psalm 109:8, which became known by many on the Christian Right and in the popular press as the “Obama Prayer.” That verse begins, “Let his days in office be few, and may another take his place” is followed by a call for the leader’s children to be fatherless, his wife a widow, and litany of curses to be heaped upon the deceased leader’s family. Senator David Perdue invoked the Psalm at a 2016 Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. President Trump’s insistence on bringing a fight to his enemies fits not only the “street fighter” persona his supporters love, but also a standing tradition among many in the Christian Right who see themselves in a fight with a fallen and secular world. The fighting language mirrors the language used by Dominion Theology proponents who promote a notion of Christian Victory as the means by which God takes dominion on earth and ushers in the age of Christ’s physical rule on earth. While the finer points of Dominion Theology may remain on the fringes of most evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities, the rhetorical style and tone are a part of the mainstream Christian Right which is fully in the fold of the GOP. Trump described people of faith as in a fight in his remarks and claimed, “Religion in this country and religion all over the world — certain religions in particular — are under siege.” This sort of language lends itself to imprecatory comments precisely because it marks those on one side of the fight as members of a covenant, while those on the other side are not keepers of the covenant or–worse yet–apostates.
At a normally non-partisan event, Trump called into question the faith of his rivals on the grounds that something done against him could not possibly have been done in the name of religious conviction. That claim coupled with Trump’s impeachment defense resting on the claim that anything done by the president in service of re-election is in service of the national interest makes for a powerful and troubling set of arguments when appealing to people of faith. Trump led his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast with thinly veiled jabs at rivals Speaker Pelosi and Senator Mitt Romney, the only Republican to break party ranks in the impeachment vote, saying, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong. Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so. So many people have been hurt, and we can’t let that go on.” Trump’s claims condemning Romney and Pelosi as people of bad faith tightly ties support of Trump to religious piety. For those on the Christian Right who figured Trump’s ascendancy to the White House as a return of Jesus to the White House, the idea that those who want to remove him from office are not people of faith is not a matter of hermeneutics. It is a matter of religious purity.
The interlocking of religious purity and national interest set apart certain of Trump’s claims in his remarks from his appeals to religious pluralism. While Trump mentioned anti-Semitism and rabbis in his remarks, his repetition of claims from the State of the Union stand out, “In America, we don’t punish prayer. We don’t tear down crosses. We don’t ban symbols of faith. We don’t muzzle preachers. We don’t muzzle pastors.” By invoking crosses and using titles associated with Christian clergy, Trump’s emphasis on religious freedom in other parts of his remarks rings a bit hollow. The claim “we are standing up for persecuted Christians and religious minorities all around the world,” feels vague given that Trump only mentions Christians by name in this comment and in other parts of his speech his anecdotes only focus on persecuted Christians. With ongoing persecution of Uighur Muslims in China and multiple attacks on synagogues here in the United States, the lack of specificity when talking about “religious minorities” stands out because it allows Trump to direct his message to a base on the Christian Right. That base tends to be less interested in issue of religious pluralism in the context of religious liberties than in being able to assert their own re-reading of the Establishment Clause as only constraining the government from interfering in religious matters.
What is more, when Trump talks about religious minorities in the United States the primary example he provides is the burning of a Black church in Louisiana. He praises the pastor, Gerald Touissant, for starting a crowdfunding project that raised $2 million to rebuild three churches burned by an arsonist who is being charged with hate crimes. Trump fails to condemn white supremacy, fails to condemn with any specificity the historical patterns of destroying Black churches in the South, and focuses primarily on the amount of money and the size of the structures that will be built to replace the churches intentionally destroyed. In an interview, Touissant argued the burning of these churches was connected to, “the way that the country has been going lately, people have been emboldened to do things they had never done before in a long – well, in a long time.” Trump seems more interested in the construction of the new churches as physical properties than the healing that these communities need to move forward. While he does praise African American churches for having “raised the conscience of the nation,” Trump seems to focus on the persecution of Christians in this context, rather than the context of Black people of any faith being targets of racism in the United States.
The remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast push religious identification as a grounds from which to fight, rather than religion as a means to bring groups of people together in good faith. The remarks also belie the belief of people like Senator Susan Collins who argue that Trump has been chastened by the impeachment proceedings and has “learned his lesson.” Further, they confirm something already known, Trump is not a penitent man in politics or religion. After describing people of faith as fighters, Trump continued, “They like people. And sometimes they hate people. I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m trying to learn,” and quickly followed his apology with the question, “When they impeach you for nothing, then you’re supposed to like them?” The mea culpa seems more of a confession that Trump’s religion involves hating his enemies rather than loving them. In this way, Trump’s comments share more in common with imprecatory psalms than the nonpartisan prayers generally associated with the National Prayer Breakfast. That hardly makes them uncommon or unheard of for Trump and his religious followers.
Sam Perry is an associate professor at Baylor University. He is the author of Rhetorics of Race and Religion on the Christian Right: Barack Obama and the War on Terror.