The U.S. Constitution prohibits “an establishment of religion,” but U.S. presidents have long paid tribute to the importance of faith in a divine power.
“Every free government is imbedded soundly in a deeply-felt religious faith, or it makes no sense,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower, speaking at the first National Prayer Breakfast in 1953. Since then, all presidents have spoken at the annual event, often highlighting their own faith or the role of prayer in their personal lives.
This year’s breakfast will give President Trump another opportunity to burnish his less than perfect reputation as a religious man. The White House on Wednesday confirmed that he will speak at the event, which by tradition is co-chaired by a Republican and Democratic member of Congress.
The breakfast is meant to provide a break from partisan acrimony.
“Sometimes it feels as though only divine intervention can bring Republicans and Democrats together in Washington,” wrote Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and John Boozman, R-Ark., the hosts of this year’s breakfast, in a jointly signed column in the Washington Examiner.
It doesn’t always work. Ben Carson used his speech at the 2013 Prayer Breakfast to make a blistering attack on President Obama, who was seated just a few feet away, and thereby launched his own political career. A principal speaker this year will be Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church network in California. Warren has attempted to be nonpartisan in his ministry and offered a prayer at Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“I think it is an important thing,” Warren said in a Facebook video, referring to the breakfast, “particularly right now, after this last election and campaigning, which has really divided America.” He cited the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus called on his followers to be peacemakers.
“Who wants to bring peace? As Christians, we are called to do that,” Warren said.
With his own speech at the breakfast, Trump will have to choose whether to attempt some reconciliation with his political opponents or confront them, as he has done in the past week, as Democrats in Congress resisted his Cabinet nominations.
Trump’s order last week suspending the admission of refugees and temporarily barring immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries could also be an issue at the prayer breakfast. The order has aroused stiff and vocal opposition from many Christian groups.