Few politicos at the National Prayer Breakfast were shocked when President Donald Trump brandished copies of The Washington Post and USA Today to celebrate their “AQUITTED” headlines.
But it was a Harvard University professor who did something even more provocative -- quoting strong words from Jesus of Nazareth during an event known for its meek God-talk and vague calls for unity.
America’s “biggest crisis,” said Arthur Brooks of the Kennedy School of Government, is a culture of contempt that is “tearing our society apart.”
”I want to turn to the words of the ultimate original thinker, history’s greatest social entrepreneur, and as a Catholic, my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus,” said Brooks, author of books such as “The Conservative Heart” and “Love Your Enemies.” He is the former leader of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
The key passage for this era, he said, is found in Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 5, verses 43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Brooks added: “Love your enemies! Now that is thinking differently. It changed the world starting 2,000 years ago, and it is as subversive and counterintuitive today as it was then. But the devil’s in the details. How do we do it in a country and world roiled by political hatred and differences that we can’t seem to bridge?”
Trump declined to take part when Brooks challenged prayer-breakfast participants to raise their hand if they loved someone who disagreed with them about politics.
As the next speaker, the president responded to Brooks’ remarks with words that unleashed a week of online debate among conservative religious believers -- early Trump supporters and reluctant Trump supporters alike -- who have debated the degree to which they can embrace his take-no-prisoners approach to national leadership.
Addressing Brooks, Trump said: “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you.”
Moments later, the president took aim at his opponents -- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was seated at the head table -- calling them “dishonest and corrupt people” who have “done everything possible to destroy us.”
”They know what they are doing is wrong, but they put themselves far ahead of our great country,” he added. “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. So many people have been hurt, and we can’t let that go on.”
The question that loomed over the online debates that followed the prayer breakfast was whether Trump -- by rejecting the “love your enemies” commandment -- was signaling his disagreement with Brooks or with Jesus.
Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, for three decades the host of a media dinner linked to the National Prayer Breakfast, mourned this lost opportunity for some sense of reconciliation after a brutal week of political warfare.
”If the person who believes he or she has been wronged by another reaches out and offers forgiveness,” he wrote, “it can have the effect of disarming the other person and lowering the political and personal temperature. ... Perhaps it is time to suspend this annual event, or to hold it without this president attending if he can’t accept the nonpartisan theme that has been its tradition for nearly seven decades.”
Another religious conservative, in an online piece framed as a personal letter to Trump, called for a change in White House tone that would be appropriate, both as a faith statement and as a political strategy.
”You believe in deals. So maybe you can make a deal for us,” wrote Hunter Baker, dean of arts and sciences at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. “Please don’t shame us by attending events like the National Prayer Breakfast and turning a meeting based on faith into another avenue for political combat.”
Instead, he suggested that Trump ponder another piece of scripture, Romans 12, verse 20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Baker told the president: “Maybe you should try that.”
(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)