At National Prayer Breakfast, Trump Pledges, 'I Will Never Let You Down'
With his opening words at this year's National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump made clear he saw the largely conservative crowd as a friendly audience, one he was eager to please.
"I will never let you down," he said. "I can say that. Never."
In his first appearance at the event in 2017, Trump promised to get rid of the Johnson Amendment, a cause popular among those Christians who resent the law's restriction of political speech by pastors. The law is still on the books, and Trump did not repeat the promise this year.
He devoted much of his speech instead to other issues important to conservative Christians, from religious liberty to abortion. He praised Vice President Pence's wife, Karen, for teaching at a conservative Christian school that requires its staff to declare a belief in marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman," and he pledged support for a government-funded Catholic adoption agency in Michigan that faces an ACLU lawsuit over its refusal to place children with same-sex couples.
The National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event first held in 1953, is traditionally a nonpartisan event that draws thousands of people from a variety of faith traditions, including diplomats, businesspeople and politicians. Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has addressed the breakfast. The co-chairs this year were Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among the members of Congress in attendance.
In his speech to the breakfast, Trump promoted his administration's record in matters of faith, such as his effort to secure the freedom of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor who spent two years in a Turkish prison. Turning to Brunson, who was in the audience, Trump took credit for his release in October 2018.
"He was there for a long time before I got there," Trump claimed. "I said, 'You gotta let him out.' And they let you out."
Trump got the loudest applause in response to a line suggesting his opposition to abortion, a theme he also highlighted in his State of the Union speech two days earlier.
"As part of our commitment to building a just and loving society, we must build a culture that cherishes the dignity and sanctity of innocent human life," he said. "All children born and unborn are made in the holy image of God." The crowd stood and roared.
Trump avoided partisan digs in his remarks to the breakfast, apparently in deference to its nonpartisan character, focusing instead on the role religion plays in public life.
"Many of the people in this room lead and support the charities and faith-based institutions that bring hope to the lives of our citizens, comfort to those in despair, solace to those in grief, and aid to those in need," he said.
Reading from his teleprompter, Trump made one significant gaffe. Saying people of faith were behind many of the nation's greatest accomplishments, he included among those achievements the "abolition of civil rights." He did not correct himself.
Sen. Coons and Sen. Lankford, the breakfast co-chairs, were largely responsible for choosing the breakfast guest speakers, which included Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission, an organization that works to end slavery and human trafficking. Coons and Lankford also lead a weekly prayer group at the U.S. Capitol, attended by several dozen Democratic and Republican members.
"My role in this year's prayer breakfast was to demonstrate that Sen. Lankford and I have a good and genuine relationship," Coons said afterward, "and that out of our shared faith we can pull together a breakfast that is not partisan."
Coons, who has a master's degree from Yale Divinity School, has long advocated that the Democratic Party make greater efforts to reach voters of faith.
"Many of us Democrats are uncomfortable talking publicly about our faith," Coons said. "As a result, a lot of younger Americans associate Christianity and public professions of faith with some of the most politically conservative and theologically conservative views. But some of the most progressive senators are actively worshiping Christians. They just don't talk about it. I think that's one of the things I'm able to contribute here in Washington."