Vice President Mike Pence addressed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Tuesday, using his speech to sell the crowd of religious leaders and devotees on the spiritual bona fides of the new administration.
Pence emphasized the need for religious freedom, both domestically and globally, and said the U.S. is dedicated to ensuring liberty for all faiths. “America condemns the persecution of any faith, in any place, at any time,” Pence said. “And we will confront it with all of our might.”
But the vice president spent a good part of his speech selling the crowd on Trump’s commitment to religious issues.
While Pence was raised Catholic, he converted to evangelical Christianity in the 1990s and has been unabashed in speaking out about faith-based issues. The vice president has worked closely on policies related to religious freedom and abortion during this early period of the administration.
This includes an executive order Trump signed last month that he said would promote religious liberties by shielding religious organizations who take political stands from tax consequences and by asking federal agencies to consider loosening requirements that employers cover contraception in their insurance plans.
Many religious leaders, particularly evangelical Christians, have said they feel the executive order does not go far enough, however. Pence touted the policy Tuesday as an example of Trump’s work on safeguarding religious liberty.
“I can assure you this president believes that no American should have to violate their conscience to fully participate in American life,” Pence said. “And he has not just talked about it, he has taken action to protect men and women of faith in the public square.”
Pence’s speech Tuesday, which called on attendees to be “on God’s side,” contrasted with the president’s speech before the larger National Prayer Breakfast in February.
While Trump discussed the importance of religious freedom in that address, following the lead of every president since Dwight Eisenhower, he also touched on a series of more secular topics, including counterterrorism and immigration policy.
Whereas President Obama used a variation of the word “prayer” 18 times in his 2016 address to the breakfast, Trump used it a mere 4 times. He also took the occasion to disparage the ratings of the NBC reality show “The Apprentice,” which he formerly hosted. After being introduced by Mark Burnett, who used to produce the program, the president joked that attendees should “pray” so that the show’s ratings would go up.
Trump also praised Senate Chaplain Barry Black, the keynote speaker, by saying he should continue to serve in his position and “the hell with it.” The word “hell” would likely be considered a swear word by many in attendance.
Trump was raised in the Presbyterian church. But he has often expressed attitudes that are at odds with major tenets of Christianity, such as his admission, or boast, that he does not ask God for forgiveness.
“I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t,” Trump said in 2015.
Trump had an audience with Pope Francis last month, which Pence described as a rich discussion of global issues. Observers said the pope, who has publicly criticized Trump’s plan to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, looked uncomfortable meeting the president.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said last year. Trump responded that the pontiff’s remarks were “disgraceful.”
Some Catholics attending the prayer breakfast Tuesday did not seem bothered by Trump’s religious record.
“He has laid a series of promises that I think will be interesting to watch — will they be fulfilled,” Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative, said. “I have no doubt he is going to try [to fulfill those]. By himself can the president do this, no. Can he run Congress? No. … But can he lead, yes.”
While Fagan said he has had past concerns about Trump’s temperament, he said he thinks Trump’s policy proposals are strong. “[Trump has] tremendous substance, and that is coming out,” he said.
Lorraine Kuchmy, director of administration for the Livingston Group, said she believed in Trump’s ability to live up to his promises on religious issues. “His views are on the right path now,” Kuchmy said, adding, “I believe the Lord is doing something important with this man.”
Others were more skeptical of Trump. While he was “pleasantly surprised” with Trump’s selection of Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court, breakfast attendee Dan Krieger noted that Trump’s record does create some concern.
“I walked into this election cautiously optimistic, and there’s still a lot of caution there,” Krieger said. “You look at his record, there is reason to be cautious, and there seems to be some turbulence over the first few months, but it’s a long four years.”
Despite these concerns, Pence maintained that Trump would be listening to the Catholic community during his time in office.
“American Catholics have an ally in President Donald Trump,” he said.
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