Earlier this month, Cardus President and CEO Michael Van Pelt attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington attended by President Trump. Van Pelt witnessed first hand the hardened divisions between Americans of faith and their media. He warns Canadians should brace themselves for a spill over effect.
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Convivium: You were recently at the Washington National Prayer Breakfast where President Trump spoke. You came away from it, I gather, feeling the significance was completely missed.
Michael Van Pelt: The Washington National Prayer Breakfast is the focal point of literally of thousands and thousands of prayer breakfasts that take place in cities across North America and around the world. It's a substantial, quiet institution and, across the world, is consistently making an effort to put together people to pray who are not necessarily politically aligned. That's one thing I thought was overlooked.
This is a Prayer Breakfast that has a long record. It’s consistently putting together a platform people who pray together at prayer meetings that are happening at government houses all across the world. They are people who pray about the condition of their country and it is very nonpartisan.
So, in the most partisan environment that we've probably seen in the U.S. for a long time, here’s what happened. You have an institution that's 64 years old. The Washington National Prayer Breakfast has had every single president attend for 64 years. Yes, Trump was the big deal, and it’s important we talk about that. But it's really not about Trump. Trump was at an event that has been happening for 64 years, and which every future president who will likely attend. In that context, there were really interesting stories that were never old because there was so much focus on Trump.
The two primary stories that have been told were a completely unfortunate and irreverent quip from the president about Arnold Schwarzenegger, and on religious freedom and the Johnson Amendment (to abolishing regulations that prohibit pastors making political statements from pulpits).
What didn't get shared that was worthy of discussion was the contrast between President Trump's speech and the speech of Senate Chaplain Barry Black, the keynote speaker. The contrast was in the Senate chaplain’s very substantial, impassionate, state-based speech, that actually sounded more like a sermon than anything else, and the fairly typical election speech of Trump.
Convivium: Even though the election's long over….
MVP: It's a mode of communicating that Trump has developed. He gave a political speech. It didn't communicate well in an environment where the topic was prayer. The response of the 4000 people there to (Chaplain) Black’s speech was dramatic. It got an absolutely amazing response. People were moved by it.
They saw it as a different description of our moment, and our responsibilities as citizens who believe that their faith has something to do with their public life. So, everyone was waiting for the president at the biggest Prayer Breakfast ever. Everyone wanted to be there - obviously some of them to show their support for Trump. But in entertainment language, the chaplain stole the show. I wanted to know why, but it was never even reported.
The second thing interesting that never got reported was the unease in the crowd. I spent two days there. I attended 10 to 15 different speeches by various people. A lot of people were quite enthusiastic about the election of the president, and that was reinforced by the announcement of the Supreme Court nomination (the day before). There was an excitement about that, a gratefulness that was clearly evident in the room.
But there was also a kind of unease. I would love to know if the unease related to the discomfort with the way Donald Trump speaks. It doesn't fit with the traditional Prayer Breakfast modus operandi. He just doesn't use the language. My view is there is a sense of, "We're supporting him, but we also are going at it with a significant unease."
C: They don't fully trust where he's going? They may have ridden along, but they're not quite sure to where?
MVP: It’s a touch of the fear of the unknown, and potentially the instability. It’s not just the progressive Christian left.
C: What else was missed?
The third thing that I did not see reported is that this year there was apparently the largest contingent of international delegates to the Prayer Breakfast ever. That makes me curious. Trump is standing up saying, "America is being taken advantage of." At the same time, it's the largest contingent of international delegates.
C: Was your sense that they wanted to come and get a measure of him?
MVP: If I were a journalist, I would have been trying to find out. For me, that's a question. What were they (international delegates) there for? They did not need to be at a Prayer Breakfast to improve their procurement, to negotiate about a trade agreement. We know there's huge international hesitancy about Donald Trump. I just think it's a question that never got explored. I haven't seen it in the media. I think the public would want to know.
C: I'm not going to ask you, obviously, to enter the dark, moth-eaten mind of a journalist, but do you think it's the overall reaction and the extreme focus on Trump was because various groups within culture, including the media, are operating from a script about him that they just can't get away from? Or do you think it's more that they just don't understand either prayer or the Prayer Breakfast environment they were operating in?
MVP: I think it's three things. There is is a natural response to the months and months of campaigning, where reporters grab onto the tabloid story. Honestly, if you had asked the 4,000 people who were there what the story would be coming out of the Prayer Breakfast, they would've never referred to President Trump’s joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger. For many, it was irreverent, a very disrespectful joke about prayer. He took too long. But no one would have thought that would the top of the news. But it fits with the basic narrative of celebrity, tabloid-like reporting: "He got into a fight with another celebrity."
The second thing is that it's pretty clear the likes of CNN would have preferred a different kind of president. So, their criticism is there, showing a negative side of Trump. It’s a natural expression of their hesitancy about the elected president. Which I think they forget: Trump actually is an elected president.
The third one is…I don't know if journalists can get underneath the superficiality. The Prayer Breakfast is very intentional that it is not about partisan politics. It is about prayer. Oftentimes, there's Scripture reading. I do think it is hard for a journalist who has not been trained in the rituals or the liturgies of a faith-based community to really understand what's going on.
What really struck me is the 4,000 people at the Prayer Breakfast are good, salt of the earth people who want the best for their country and believe deeply that being faithful is an important part of that. I'm sure some of them have a very Reconstructionist view: America as the new light on the hill or the new Jerusalem or the new Israel, or all those kind of theological things. But in the end, they're just a whole lot of good people who really care for their country. Something gets lost in our politicizing that.
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C: When you say "politicizing" do you mean not taking the Prayer Breakfast itself at face value as being a non-political event, but rather the media and other cultural institutions, insisting it be a political event regardless of the organizers’ intentions?
MVP: I imagine that most presidents have come to it as a political event. When Obama came, his speech was very, very Christian speech. He was speaking to a market. But just because someone uses it for political purposes, there’s a need to get beyond that and find out what is really going on.
You'd be very surprised by the number of people who go away from the Prayer Breakfast and in their normal prayer life would pray for their country and for the president - even if some actually disagree with the president.
C: What you're describing is a serious divide, beyond even a partisan political divide, in how people operate within a country. You're describing deep division in understanding, and even the capacity to understand. It’s division between superficiality and depth, but worse between the vocabulary of prayer and the vocabulary of celebrity, of tabloidism.
MVP: The chaplain represented the depth. The President, unfortunately in this case, represented the superficiality. The media just couldn’t understand what was going to happen. So they’re drawn to the tabloid.
C: What's the prognosis for hope in such a situation? How can groups so deeply divided bridge the chasm? How can they begin speaking to each other again?
MVP: One of the challenges to the American project is a very close tie between Christianity and the idea of the nation. So, the thinking goes, if you're Christian, you're American. And if you're American, you're Christian.. I'm not sure that has been positive for a deeper understanding of what it means to be Christian and being committed to Christ's presence here on Earth. I think there’s a challenge for the Americans on that front.
To find the hope, though, that's tough. We are in a difficult time. I'm watching Christians more divided than ever, and I'm watching significant Christian leaders, whose views are getting hardened. It's interesting because that's contrary to the basic purpose of the Prayer Breakfast. But a Canadian friend of mine basically says: "You should boycott, they should just shut down the Prayer Breakfast. The fact they let President Trump speak at the Prayer Breakfast, that's terrible. They should be shutting the thing down."
Of course, as I said earlier, this is not about President Trump. It’s about prayer.
C: Even prayer, at this point, other than within individual hearts or within specific groups, isn't able to bridge the divide? You'd think that if there were anywhere you’d put down the hostility, it would be at a Prayer Breakfast.
Does that have a spill over effect for us here in Canada?
MVP: It has a huge spill over for us because Christians in Canada are following those hardened lines as well. For some reason, the American election has caused many Canadian Christians in positions of leadership to harden their positions and, I think, be more open about articulating their positions in more rigid ways. It’s on both sides - the right and the left. I'm not sure what good's going to come from it.