At the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump made this pronouncement:
“Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from God. Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that — remember.”
Trump doubled down on his commitment to evangelicals on May 13, 2017, when he delivered his first commencement speech as President at Liberty University, an institution whose president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. was one of Trump’s earliest evangelical supporters.
America is better when people put their faith into action. As long as I am president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart.
Then on June 8, 2017, President Trump expanded on his own religious commitment. “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God.” He made this statement at Road to Majority, the annual conference hosted by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.
While Trump’s words received resounding applause from those gathered at the events, his executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” falls short of his trumped-up religious hyperbole. This order—signed on May 4, 2017—uses vague language directing the executive branch to “honor and enforce” existing protections for religious liberty and asks agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations” for organizations that don’t want to cover contraception in employer health insurance plans.
In particular, despite his fiery rhetoric to abolish the Johnson Amendment, Trump’s executive order fails to dismantle the actual provisions of this amendment that prohibit religious leaders from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. In recent years, the federal government has failed to enforce this amendment by not penalizing those religious leaders and organizations who blatantly ignore civil laws regulating churches and religious organizations. In 2007, the Senate Finance Committee investigated six high profile ministries, though this inquiry failed to result in any actual legislation requiring churches to demonstrate greater financial transparency.
Along those lines, the IRS no longer enforces the US Supreme Court ruling in IRS v. Bob Jones University (1982) that requires faith based institutions who receive Federal funding to abide by civil laws that bar discrimination or access to legally sanctioned services such as abortion. In recent years, faith based events such as the Pulpit Freedom Movement, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, and the Voters Values Summit appear to be directly thumbing their nose (and other body parts) as though daring the IRS to target them for clearly crossing the church-state separation line.
Other events like the National Prayer Breakfast serve up a kinder and gentler form of faith based politics. The Family (aka The Fellowship) began hosting this event in 1953 during the Eisenhower era when Christianity became imbedded as the civil religion of a post-war US of A. During this era, “In God We Trust” was added to the US paper currency, “Under God” became part of the Pledge of Allegiance, and evangelist Billy Graham led crusades against the evils of godless Communism.
Extensive reporting by religion scholar Jeff Sharlet has well documented The Family’s funding of right wing ventures and connections to a wide array of political figures including Vice President Mike Pence. Also, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose appointment represented a major win for the religious right, can be connected to The Family via one of their private events titled “The Gathering”. Most of those who participate in The Fellowship tend to be Republican, though Hillary Clinton was among those Democrats who called the late Doug Coe, former head of The Family, a spiritual mentor.
The Family may be a private religious organization; however, every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has shown up dutifully every year to offer their remarks at this breakfast. Invitations to the National Prayer Prayer Breakfast are issued on Congressional letterhead and press credentials are distributed through the White House press corps.
The National Prayer Breakfast is billed as an interfaith gathering where people of all faiths and political affiliations are welcome, though it was founded “in the spirit of Jesus.” The Rev. William J. Barber, founder of the Moral Mondays movement, observed that despite the bipartisan nature of this event, “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.”
Furthermore, some more progressive evangelicals may protest against the Trump presidency but remain connected to The Family’s network. For example, the evangelical social justice organization Sojourners posts pieces opposing Trump’s actions, and their CEO Jim Wallis has been cited in news sources like The New York Times as a religious liberal leader. Yet Sojourners remains supportive of The Family, with Wallis expounding on his appearances at the National Prayer Breakfast alongside celebrities like Bono. Skim the social media buzz following this annual event and note those progressive Christian leaders who chose to sit at the table with the Christian capitalists instead of turning over the temple tables Jesus style.
Also, when bestselling former hipster Christian pastor Rob Bell launched yet another book tour to promote yet another book that presents yet another less judgmental version of the Bible, he downplayed his connection to DeVos. When asked about his connection to her during a book event in Portland, OR, Bell stated that DeVos was one of several hundred donors who contributed to the video project that launched his career on the international Christian stage. In fact, DeVos was an elder at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville which he founded, and The Richard and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation donated over $9 million dollars to both this church and Bell’s personal ministry.
These seemingly left-leaning religious leaders seem to conveniently ignore The Family’s hard right connections. They may claim to be kindler and gentler Christians but they remain connected to some Family friendly entities and individuals that enabled Trump to ascend to the presidency. In this regard, they resemble an environmental activist who owns stock in Exxon Oil.
No matter what evangelicals may preach, always follow the money. That journey will point to that which they truly worship. All too often, this path crosses over the church-state-line even in seemingly progressive circles. Their destination is the intersection of Christ and capitalism, where those in religious and political power bow down in unison before the Almighty Dollar.