SALT LAKE CITY — Moral courage is not standing up to your foes, but standing up to defend them. That was the theme of Thursday morning’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. — although President Donald Trump, a guest speaker, disagreed.
Other speakers — like Harvard professor Arthur Brooks — and Democratic and Republican legislators stressed the importance of unity and Jesus Christ’s teaching that Christians are to love not just their neighbors, but also their enemies, the morning after the president was acquitted from impeachment by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The breakfast began with song and prayer as the audience of lawmakers, religious leaders and representatives from more than a hundred countries sang enthusiastically — and out of tune — the song “I Saw The Light,” by country music legend Hank Williams:
No more darkness, no more night
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light
Attendees then bowed their heads in prayer before the modest meal of bagels, fruit, coffee and orange juice. Unlike in the Senate, no chocolate milk was shown on television.
After a 20-minute recess for breakfast, the host introduced Vice President and second lady Mike and Karen Pence. The couple walked the small line of guests at the head table, shaking each of their hands, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The tone changed when the president was introduced, foreshadowing the speech he would deliver later in the morning. He took the stage, walked to his seat and silently raised a copy of USA Today for the audience — and television cameras — to see. The newspaper’s bold, one word headline read: “Acquitted.”
What is the National Prayer Breakfast?
The National Prayer Breakfast is a nonpartisan conference of religious leaders of different faiths, politicians, government officials and guest speakers to put politics aside and break bread. The breakfast began in 1953 when members of congress asked President Dwight Eisenhower — “in the spirit of Jesus” — to breakfast, according to The Fellowship Foundation which helps organize the event.
The breakfast “is an opportunity for the religious community to build productive relationships with political and business communities,” says Share America, a website run by the U.S. Department of State.
Two guest speakers are chosen each year — one of which is always the sitting president — to speak at the breakfast. Harvard public policy and business professor Dr. Arthur Brooks and President Trump were this year’s guest speakers.
Hoping to inspire the breakfast’s bipartisan attendees— which included Trump and Pelosi— the conservative Harvard Kennedy School professor and author of 2019 national bestseller “Love Your Enemies” told the audience it was up to “people of faith” to unite the world.
A “crisis of contempt and polarization is tearing our societies apart,” Brooks said, adding that it was “people of faith” who were “to lift our nations up and bring people together.”
Brooks called Jesus Christ “the ultimate new thinker.” Citing Matthew 5:44, Brooks — nearly preaching — told the audience it wasn’t our neighbors that Jesus told us to love, but our enemies.
“Moral courage is not standing up to people with whom you disagree. Moral courage is standing up to the people with whom you agree, on behalf of those with whom you disagree,” he said.
“Can you do it? Are you up for it?” Brooks asked.
Without saying the senator’s name, it was clear Brooks was evoking the “moral courage” of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who’d voted against his Republican Party’s decision to acquit the president of the impeachment charge of abuse of power on Wednesday afternoon.
The professor said he had homework for the breakfast audience and that they were to ask God for the strength to love their enemies.
Trump followed Brooks’ speech, but didn’t share the professor’s sentiment.
“Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you,” Trump said before getting into his speech.
“This morning we come together as one nation blessed to live in freedom and grateful to worship in peace,” Trump began before quickly pivoting to his impeachment.
“As everyone knows, my family, our great country and your president have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people. They have done everything possible to destroy us, and by so doing, very badly hurt our nation,” the president said.
Trump spoke of the “courageous Republican politicians and leaders” that had the “wisdom, fortitude and strength” to have supported him during the Congressional impeachment.
“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,” said Trump, alluding to Romney and Pelosi — who says she prays for the president.
Pelosi — sitting just feet from Trump — had earlier prayed for “the millions that are missing or murdered because of their faith.”
Trump: ‘prayer makes us stronger’
The president then transitioned to a more traditional speech for the annual event, praising the role of religion in civic life and promising to defend religious liberties.
“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. In America we celebrate faith. We cherish religion. We lift our voices in prayer and we raise our sights to the glory of God,” Trump said.
“All of us here today reaffirm these timeless truths: Faith keeps us free, prayer makes us stronger and God alone is the author of life and giver of grace.
“We are in a fight. Religion in this country and religion all over the world — certain religions in particular — are under siege. We won’t let that happen. We are going to protect our religions. We are going to protect Christianity. We are going to protect our great ministers and pastors and rabbis and all of the people that we so cherish and that we so respect,” the president said.
With impeachment less than 24 hours behind him, Trump used part of the speech to addressed the need for his reelection to protect his pro-faith policies.
“You better get out and vote on Nov. 3, because you have a lot of people out there that aren’t liking what we’re doing,” he said.