President Trump opened his speech at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast in classic Trumpian style. He took a bizarre moment to celebrate his own “tremendous success on ‘The Apprentice'” and attack the lower ratings scored by the new host, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Trump’s utter inability to avoid hijacking an event to praise himself and mock his enemies has been widely critiqued, and rightly so. His digression today evinces, once again, a remarkably self-centered mindset and the incessant failure of self-control that seems typical of our new president. We did not need further proof that Trump’s personal character is deeply lacking, but he has here offered it in spades.
Nevertheless, the “Apprentice” comments are not the most troubling thing Trump said at the prayer breakfast. That came later, in a clearly scripted portion of the speech where Trump conflated protecting Americans’ religious freedom with escalating U.S. military intervention abroad.
Here’s how he did it. First, Trump brought up the subject of religious liberty:
It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, the God who gave us life, gave us liberty. Jefferson asked, can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God. Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. […]
Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us, and the world is under serious, serious threat in so many different ways.
So far, this sounds like it’s going to be a comment on domestic issues, right? Maybe he’s thinking of common religious liberty battles, like wedding vendors who want to be able to legally refuse to work a same-sex wedding on religious grounds.
Trump’s specific mention of his plan to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment” — the rule which prohibits churches and other nonprofits from endorsing political candidates while retaining the nonprofit tax status — further places these religious liberty comments in a domestic category.
But then, Trump begins to pivot:
Terrorism is a fundamental threat to religious freedom. It must be stopped and it will be stopped. It may not be pretty for a little while. It will be stopped. […]
We have seen peace-loving Muslims brutalized, victimized, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people. We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians, where they cut off heads. Not since the Middle Ages have we seen that. We haven’t seen that, the cutting off of heads.
Did you catch the shift he’s making? First he talks about domestic religious liberty issues that could directly affect you or me or any average American. But then he jumps over to foreign policy, to the obscene brutality of the Islamic State against any religious group that does not share its exact views.
Now, Trump is right that ISIS has horribly persecuted people because of their religion, but his pivot here is deceptive. Remember, this sort of persecution is only possible in places where ISIS controls territory — which is not and never will be the United States. For all its horror, ISIS stands no chance implementing its reign of terror in America.
Yes, we have suffered ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks, but that is not what Trump is describing here. He is talking about ISIS rule as a threat to religious freedom — which it absolutely is, but not American religious freedom.
If this seems like an unfair reading of Trump’s remarks, here’s what he said next:
All nations have a moral obligation to speak out against such violence. All nations have a duty to work together to confront it and to confront it viciously if we have to.
So I want to express clearly today, to the American people, that my administration will do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land.
In these two lines, which come immediately after the stuff about cutting off heads, Trump’s conflation becomes explicit. The United States will maintain or escalate its military confrontation against ISIS brutality so that religious liberty “in our land” will be protected.
In other words, Trump is saying: Let me ramp up American wars in the Middle East or your head is at risk of being detached from your body.
Here’s the thing, maybe Trump is right that the U.S. should escalate its military interventions against ISIS. Personally, I think the last 15 years have more than demonstrated that is a reckless and foolish plan, but let’s set that aside for the moment.
What he is absolutely not right about is this suggestion that ISIS poses an existential threat to the United States, that terrorism is a primary threat to our religious liberty in America, or that war is the way to “defend and protect religious liberty in our land.”
Americans should not be fooled by this conflation; we have already seen the havoc wars based in false pretenses can wreak.