Thursday, President Donald Trump will address Christians and other people of faith directly for the first time of his presidency when he speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast.
This will be a tall order for the most secular, religiously illiterate president in American history whose recent actions on immigration and refugees were--according to some of his own advisors--motivated by animus toward an entire religious community.
What Trump says at the prayer breakfast will tell us much about how we can expect his administration to navigate religious issues during his presidency.
As I discuss in my recent book about faith and the Obama White House, "Reclaiming Hope," the National Prayer Breakfast is useful in that it prompts the entire federal government—or at least those parts of the federal government President Trump has bothered to staff—to consider their priorities and message to the faith community. We will likely learn what President Trump intends for the future of The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
I have serious concerns that the Trump administration will view the Office as just one more platform to use to build political support for their policies. Instead, the Faith-based Office, since it was first created by President George W. Bush, is intended to focus on supporting and resourcing the religious and non-profit sector to serve those in need.
This core focus is key to the success of the Office, and to maintaining its viability through both Democratic and Republican administrations.
If President Trump is serious about maintaining the integrity of the Office as a resource for good work happening across the entire faith community, he can make it clear in several ways at the prayer breakfast.
First, President Trump should appoint someone from the social service sector to lead his faith-based office. Someone who is intimately acquainted with the challenges facing non-profits, particularly religious non-profits, and who has a record of leadership in serving the poor and vulnerable.
Second, the Executive Director of the Office should be restored to at least the level of a Deputy Assistant to the President, which will empower the official within the federal government, and in dealings with stakeholders.
Third, the faith-based office should focus squarely on representing the views of the religious and non-profit communities in policy planning, and serving as a resource to them, and only serve a supplemental role in building support for various White House initiatives. There should be a senior official in the Office of Public Engagement, also a commissioned officer, who is chiefly responsible for working with the faith community on administration policy priorities.
Fourth, if President Trump can’t bear to have a diverse—religiously, ideologically and otherwise—Advisory Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, he should get rid of it.
When President Obama started the Council in 2009, its members represented the diversity of the American faith community, and the administration benefitted from its expertise.
It is important that the Advisory Council not be a turned into a cadre of religious lackeys for Trump who get trotted out to justify whatever policy the Trump Administration happens to be pushing at the time.
Finally, President Trump should give the faith community a unifying charge in his prayer breakfast speech. Our country is facing big challenges, and people of faith can be part of the answer to many of them.
A report from Baylor University released this week highlights just how much the faith community contributes to alleviating homelessness in this country.
The Trump administration could choose to double-down on these efforts and empower people of faith and religious organizations to do even more. Or the focus could be supporting foster care and adoptive families. Or mentoring kids.
The prayer breakfast is a great opportunity for Donald Trump to show that he understands that America is not about him. He is not the public’s star; he is their servant.
Donald Trump will speak at his first prayer breakfast to a divided audience—some members of his audience will be divided themselves. He has a record of crass statements that do not reflect moral discernment. He has denigrated entire religious communities. Broad swaths of the faith community—including Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims and Jewish organizations—have mobilized against his recent actions against immigration and refugees. And yet, for particularly conservative religious Americans, his administration also represents an opportunity to advance forward a pro-life agenda, and protect religious freedoms they feel are at risk. There will be open ears in the audience on Thursday morning.
The question is whether Trump will use the opportunity to further divide us, to close minds and calcify hearts.
I believe prayer works wonders though, so I’ll keep an open mind Thursday morning, too.
President Trump has the opportunity to make his faith-based office welcome to all faiths, focused on service, not politics.
He can send the message President Obama sent at his first prayer breakfast:
The particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America.
Here is my request: President Trump, please let the prayer breakfast, and the faith-based office, be a haven for service in these divisive times. America needs it.