In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave his followers a set of counterintuitive teachings, telling them that the meek will inherit the earth, to be glad when people persecute them, to turn the other cheek and, most importantly, to love their enemies.
President Donald Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, is having a tough time following that last command.
During Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, Trump used his time at the lectern to condemn the impeachment proceedings, rally for his own reelection and disparage the sincerity of his opponents’ faith. The president’s speech at the Washington Hilton hotel was a jarring departure from the tone set by other speakers at an annual event that traditionally seeks to promote bipartisanship and unity.
Trump spoke shortly after a keynote delivered by Arthur Brooks, a Harvard professor and president of a conservative think tank, who lamented the country’s increasing polarization.
“Some people say we need more civility and tolerance. I say, nonsense,” Brooks said. “Why? Because civility and tolerance are a low standard. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘Love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”
Brooks asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they loved someone whom they disagreed with politically. Hands shot up around the room, but Trump didn’t raise his, according to the Religion News Service.
Moments later, the president got the chance to share his thoughts out loud and he publicly wrestled with a core Christian teaching.
“Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you,” Trump said as he took the microphone.
“As everybody knows, my family, our great country and your president have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people,” Trump said. “They have done everything possible to destroy us and, by so doing, very badly hurt our nation.”
The president lashed out at Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who broke with his Republican colleagues on Wednesday by voting to convict Trump of abuse of power. The president attacked Romney for pointing to his faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to explain his vote.
“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump said.
The president also seemed to take a jab at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Catholic who has said she often prays for Trump.
“Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so,” Trump said.
Near the end of his speech, the president appeared to return to Brooks’ challenge to “love your enemies,” pointing out that religious people are sometimes guilty of hate.
“I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m trying to learn. It’s not easy. It’s not easy,” he said, prompting laughter in the audience. “When they impeach you for nothing, then you’re supposed to like them? It’s not easy, folks. I do my best.”
Trump was very publicly wrestling with core Christian teaching. It’s not the first time he’s done so. During his 2016 election campaign, he was repeatedly asked if he repented his sins, something many Christians believe is a key part of their spiritual journey. At first, Trump said he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness. He later said he does seek forgiveness but hopes he doesn’t have to do it often.
Despite his shifting theological positions and other moral missteps, Trump still enjoys strong support from his conservative Christian base, particularly from white evangelical Protestants who are thrilled by his defense of issues important to them.
On Thursday, he warned attendees at the National Prayer Breakfast that “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,” he said. “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 Rev. James Martin, editor at large of the Catholic magazine America, called Trump’s speech “disgusting,” “self-serving” and “mean-spirited.”
“At the heart of the believer’s relationship with God is a profound humility before the Lord. And at the heart of the Christian’s relationship with Jesus Christ is a profound reverence for his teachings, including, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’” Martin wrote on Twitter.
“The last place that one should flaunt one’s vanity or ignore Jesus’s teachings is in the setting of prayer,” Martin added.
John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, wrote that Trump used the National Prayer Breakfast as his “shooting range,” while his evangelical supporters “cheered.”
“Trump loves Christianity as long it props up his corrupt presidency,” Fea wrote for USA Today. “He claims to be a defender of religious freedom, but gets angry when people exercise that freedom in a manner that exposes his depravity.”
John Gehring, Catholic program director at the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life, said that even at a prayer breakfast, Trump appeared to be treating faith as a “crude tool to further his own agenda.”
“Humility is central to Christian discipleship,” Gehring told HuffPost. “President Trump seems to have no interest in stepping outside himself and learning that there is nothing Christian about worshipping your own ego.”
Other Christians chimed in on Twitter:
Jim Wallis, leader of the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, told HuffPost that loving your neighbor and your enemies are core values for Christians.
“Trump is in direct contempt with this central Christian teaching,” he said.
But Wallis also noted that loving your neighbors doesn’t mean submitting to them.
“You can love and pray for a change in Donald Trump’s heart and mind, but we can, and must, fight for justice simultaneously,” Wallis said. “We must learn what it means to love Donald Trump while rejecting Trumpism.”