Before National Prayer Breakfast, Muslims and Evangelicals Connect

February 18, 2018
Trump at 2017 National Prayer Breakfast

Last week, the 66th annual National Prayer Breakfast rounded off a three-day event promoting interfaith communication and understanding.

Compared to the 2017 prayer breakfast, during which newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump sparked controversy by promising to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment and mocking fellow reality TV personality Arnold Schwarzenegger’s television ratings, some saw Trump’s 2018 speech as being comparatively “subdued.”

The president’s 14-minute speech was widely received as being unusually bipartisan, instead drawing upon similar rhetoric of civil religion and American exceptionalism as that employed by the majority of U.S. presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first to attend the event.

In his speech, Trump proclaimed that “faith is central to American life and to liberty” and went on to note the religious language included in the Declaration of Independence and etched into public buildings.

“We praise God for how truly blessed we are to be American, Trump said. “Across our land, we see the splendor of God’s creation. Throughout our history, we see the story of God’s providence.”

The president concluded, “As long as we open our eyes to God’s grace and open our hearts to God’s love, then America will forever be the land of the free, the home of the brave, and a light unto all nations.”

Professor of religion Seth Dowland told the Washington Post that Trump’s rhetoric differed from past presidents’ because the president himself is not particularly religious.

“He pulls out religious messages when they seem advantageous to him, but it doesn’t strike me as a core feature of his rhetoric,” Dowland said. “Trump’s understanding of what Christians want is transactional, like a lot of things for him. This is what he thinks they want from him.”

In the days prior to the Thursday morning breakfast, on the other hand, a coalition of Muslims, Jews, and Christians gathered to think more expansively about what religious freedom and faith-based activism means in today’s America.

The three-day “Alliance of Virtue for the Common Good” brought together over 400 attendees for a series of speakers and discussions. An issue at the forefront for many attendees was the current state of mistrust between American Muslims and evangelical Christians—the latter of whom have a vocal contingent supporting the current administration’s attempts to curtail immigration from majority-Muslim nations.

Evangelical pastor and Alliance of Virtue attendee Bob Roberts lamented to Religion News Service the “old worldview” of a Christian America held by many of his fellow believers.

“Here’s something that’s really problematic about how we think about religious freedom: We get Christians together and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do it.’ That day is over,” Roberts said. “If we don’t have conversations on religious freedom with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews—they’re wasted conversations.”

For this kind of multifaith effort to be successful, however, participants agreed that it was important not to mince words. Recounting a conversation with a local imam, Houston megachurch pastor Steve Bezner said, “We’re five minutes into the conversation, and [the imam] said: ‘Do you think I’m going to hell?’ I said: ‘That’s what my tradition teaches, yes.’ He said: ‘Good, I think you’re going to hell, too, so now we can have an honest conversation.’”

For Islamic Center of Nashville scholar Ossama Bahloul, events like the Alliance of Virtue are critical for promoting dialogue between Muslims and evangelical Christians, the latter of whom, Bahloul says, are often absent from interfaith work.

Most evangelical pastors, Bahloul told the Washington Post, “have never interacted in their entire life with an imam.”

“We’re just trying to get to know each other,” Bahloul said.

A 2017 Pew survey found that 70 percent of Republicans said the Islamic religion is “more likely than others to encourage violence among its believers,” compared to 39 percent of Independents and 26 percent of Democrats.

The same survey found that 68 percent of Republican-leaning respondents and 72 percent of self-identified White evangelicals believe that “there is a natural conflict between Islam and democracy.”

Many have linked growing evangelical animus toward Muslims to the anti-Islamic rhetoric of President Trump, who has in the past proposed creating a registry of American Muslims and shutting down American mosques. During his presidential campaign in 2016, Trump said on CNN, “I think Islam hates us.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Trump at 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. Photo by The White House, Flickr Creative Commons.