Election 2016

Trump's Bloodthirsty National Prayer Speech Was Quite a Doozy

"Religious liberty" at home and violence abroad.

Photo Credit: Caleb Smith; Office of the Speaker of the House, Public Domain via WikiMedia

Donald Trump’s national prayer breakfast speech on Thursday drew quick coverage for everything but its most disturbing and decidedly un-Christian message, in which Trump rattled sabers, extolled warfare and said “vicious” tactics could be used to exterminate ISIS.

The headlines noted Trump’s promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a law that bars non-profit organizations, including churches, from endorsing and raising money for political candidates. If repealed by Congress, it would blur the lines between church and state. Trump also reportedly asked attendees to pray for better TV ratings for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who succeeded him on “The Apprentice."

But most reports of the event all but ignored Trump’s praise for war and warriors and his pledge to defeat ISIS, even if it means using extreme violence—quite a departure from the inspirational thoughts and open sensibility that is the traditional tone at a gathering of faith leaders. Even President George W. Bush, in his prayer breakfast speech months after the 9/11 attacks, didn’t rattle sabers, embrace warfare or say violence was America’s god-given right to wield.

“I might have missed something,” said Frederick Clarkson, senior fellow for religious liberty at Political Research Associates, “but I don't think any president has put on such a bizarrely jingoist performance in the history of the National Prayer Breakfast. If anyone here or abroad understood Trump as issuing a call to religious war, I think they heard him right.”

“One does not expect the president to be calling for a war, or calling out enemies, or talking about destroying legislation at a prayer breakfast,” said Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion, at the University of Southern California. “Usually a prayer breakfast is a non-partisan event where people focus on inspirational and aspirational ideas.”

As in many of his speeches, Trump zig-zagged into the war-centered remarks, after telling the audience not to worry about his phone calls to foreign leaders, because being tough is what's needed.

“Believe me, when you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it. They’re tough. We have to be tough,” he said, transitioning into a series of declarations about escalating the war with ISIS in the near future and going all out and being vicious.

“We have seen unimaginable violence carried out in the name of religion,” Trump said. “Acts of wanton slaughter against religious minorities. Horrors on a scale that defy description. Terrorism is a fundamental threat to religious freedom. It must be stopped and it will be stopped. It may not be pretty for a little while.”

When George W. Bush spoke at the 2002 prayer breakfast, he extolled the courage of the firefighters and rescue workers who “charged into burning buildings to save others, those who fought the hijackers, were not confused about the difference between right and wrong. They knew the difference. They knew their duty. And we know their sacrifice was not in vain.”

Trump, in contrast, praised the prospect of bloody victory led by a merciless general.

“And by the way, General—as you know, James, ‘Mad Dog,’ I shouldn’t say it in this room—Mattis,” he continued. “Now there’s a reason they call him Mad Dog Mattis. Never lost a battle. Always wins them. And always wins them fast. He’s our new Secretary of Defense. We’ll be working with [Secretary of State] Rex [Tillerson]. He’s right now in South Korea, going to Japan, going to some other spots. I’ll tell you what. I’ve gotten to know him really well. He’s the real deal. We have somebody who’s the real deal working for us, and that’s what we need. So you watch. You just watch.”

Trump then recounted ISIS’ barbarism and said America and the world must respond in kind.

“They cut off the heads. They drown people in steel cages,” he said. “Haven’t seen this. Haven’t seen this—nobody’s seen this for many, many years. All nations have a moral obligation to speak out against such violence. All nations have a duty to work together to confront it, and confront it viciously if we have to.”

Trump then abruptly changed topics. He pledged to defend religious liberty in the U.S. before launching into a defense of his decrees banning travelers from eight Muslim counties, saying steps have to be taken so “our citizens can feel safe and secure. We have to feel safe and secure.”

“In recent days, we have begun to take necessary action to achieve that goal,” he continued. “Our nation has the most generous immigration system in the world. But these are those, and there are those, that would exploit that generosity to undermine the values that we hold so dear. We need security. There are those who would seek to enter our country for the purpose of spreading violence, or oppressing other people based upon their faith, or lifestyle. Not right.”

Beyond the alternative facts Trump presented—the U.S. does not have the most generous immigration system in the world; simply compare the number of Syrian refugees admitted here to the number Germany has taken in—the juxtaposition of Trump’s pledge to wage violent war against ISIS and his defense of immigration restrictions seems to foreshadow a coming expanded conflict.

“In fairness, presidents always like to suggest that God is on their side, and pray for divine help in times of war," Clarkson said. "But Trump and the Christian right leaders who brought him to power are playing a dangerous game on a slippery slope. We can all agree that religious tolerance and liberty are defining values of our country, and even Trump will agree that these are values to which many Muslims hold dear. But to go before an audience of conservative Christians to vilify Muslims and suggest a faith-based war against Muslims—of any variety—in the name of tolerance and religious liberty brings a strange 21st-century twist to what we used to call Orwellian.”

Clarkson said the most substantive domestic portions of the speech, which garnered applause, show that Trump is committed to imposing an intolerant far-right agenda on the country.

"This is part of a broader and deeper effort to recast the domestic agenda of the Christian right in terms of religious liberty, on such matters as reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, and at the same time also cast in terms of religious liberty, the right-wing, anti-Muslim notion of the war of civilizations currently driving U.S. foreign policy,” Clarkson said. “It is fair to say that Thomas Jefferson and the founders would be aghast at these abuses of the liberatory idea of religious liberty that stirred Americans of the founding era to take up arms against the British Empire."

Indeed, USC’s Winston said Trump’s speech was out of sync for a traditional gathering of faith leaders in Washington.

“At most prayer breakfasts, the president gives a speech, which inspires listeners, and presents himself as a servant of God—or a servant of the people—and it’s couched in terms of humility and service and ideas of compassion and love and brotherhood and inclusivity and making the world a better place,” she said. “It’s usually a speech that is non-controversial and uplifting.”

“Trump’s speech today was just the opposite of that,” she continued. “It was provocative. It hit on controversial subjects. He smacked down Arnold Schwarzenegger. He spoke of destroying a law, the Johnson Amendment. He discussed geopolitics and the war against terror.”

“America will thrive as long as we continue to have faith in each other and faith in God,” Trump concluded. “That faith in God has inspired men and women to sacrifice for the needy, to deploy to wars overseas and to lock arms at home to ensure equal rights for every man, women and child in our land.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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