News

Trump’s State of the Union garners mixed reactions among faith groups

President Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., watch on Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Religious leaders and people of faith offered mixed reactions to President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening (Feb. 5), which was billed as a unifying message but which some say maintains a polarized status quo in Washington.

Standing before Congress, Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other dignitaries, the president did not offer a lengthy discussion of faith in his speech. But he did sprinkle his rhetoric with intermittent references to religion.

“We can make our communities safer, our families stronger, our culture richer, our faith deeper and our middle class bigger and more prosperous than ever before,” he said.

That line triggered applause from members of both parties. But other moments in the speech offered a reminder of the partisan divide that has riven Washington in recent years, with Republicans leaping to their feet to support the president and Democrats groaning or refusing to respond at all.

One such moment came when Trump mentioned God while emphasizing his opposition to abortion.

“Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life,” he said. “And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: All children — born and unborn — are made in the holy image of God,” he said.

Very few Democrats applauded during Trump’s discussion of abortion, although West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — arguably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate — stood and clapped.

Trump also referenced his administration’s conciliatory stance toward Israel, a posture popular among evangelical Protestants who make up a substantial portion of the president’s base.

“Our approach is based on principled realism — not discredited theories that have failed for decades to yield progress,” he said. “For this reason, my administration recognized the true capital of Israel — and proudly opened the American Embassy in Jerusalem.”

The line, along with the reference to abortion, played well with Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“President Donald Trump delivered an uplifting and inspirational message outlining the administration’s record level of achievement and describing his vision for the future of our country,” Reed said in a statement. “In two short years, President Trump has created 5.3 million new jobs … moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, defended religious liberty for people of faith, and protected the right to life for all Americans, including the unborn. As people of faith, we echo President Trump’s call for bipartisan cooperation and working together to put people ahead of politics and solve problems to improve lives.”

President Trump shakes hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he arrives in the House chamber before giving his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 5, 2019, at the Capitol in Washington. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP)

Some Democrats in attendance also applauded Trump’s line about the embassy. Others did not visibly respond, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the first two female Muslim-American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The two freshman lawmakers, who sat next to each other during the address, have drawn heated controversy for their criticism of the Israeli government and opposition to legislation that targets the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement regarding Israel.

After a discussion of his policy in the Middle East, Trump addressed rising anti-Semitism in the United States, which he described as a “vile poison” and a “venomous creed.” He pointed out two Holocaust survivors in the audience, including Judah Samet, a survivor of the October 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead.

The president’s comments did not go over well with some Jewish groups.

“(Trump’s) invocation of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the Tree of Life massacre rings hollow when he has consistently utilized antisemitic tropes, such as his campaign ads denouncing ‘globalists’ and espousing conspiracy theories about George Soros, all while advancing a white nationalism that puts Jews and so many other Americans in danger,” read a statement from Ginna Green, chief strategy officer of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice group that has been critical of Trump.

Similarly unimpressed were representatives from HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement organization that was also reportedly a target of the Tree of Life shooting suspect’s vitriol.

“Stories of Holocaust survivors are reminders that we should welcome the stranger and protect the refugee,” Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS, said in a statement. “Making the U.S. great means upholding our commitment to international law and asylum seekers. Blocking people from applying at ports of entry and forcing asylum seekers at our southern border to remain in Mexico to await their hearing is illegal, dangerous and unprecedented in American history.”

The most contentious section of the evening was Trump’s discussion of his immigration policies, which largely revolved around defending his administration’s hard-line stance on border protection and warning of “organized caravans (that) are on the march to the United States” — a disputed claim that drew groans and boos from Democrats in the audience.

Some lawmakers who oppose Trump’s immigration policies invited guests who were immigrants, refugees or others impacted by the president’s policies.

Omar, a former refugee who spent Tuesday morning discussing her Muslim faith during a faith-and-politics event at the Center for American Progress, invited a Liberian immigrant facing deportation due to the Trump administration’s decision to end Deferred Enforced Departure protections for Liberians.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., invited Awn Sian Mung, also known as Mungsan, a refugee from Myanmar who now works as a case manager for Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains in Albuquerque, N.M.

Mungsan told Religion News Service he is taking Trump’s speech “positively” but questioned why the president would call on immigrants to enter the country legally while also repeatedly reducing the refugee cap as president.

“My question would be: If he says immigrants have to come in legally, and refugees come in legally, are we going to increase the number?” he said. “What is the point of reducing the number?”

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the parent organization of Mungsan’s group, was skeptical of the speech.

“The only border crisis is one the administration concocted — one that separates families and makes it more difficult for those with a credible fear to claim asylum,” Bishop Michael Rinehart, LIRS board chair, said in a statement. “Children are dying out there. Families desperately seeking protection in the U.S. are being turned away or told to wait.”

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, brought along Valdir Solera, a man who came to the U.S. from Brazil in 2013 as a victim of human trafficking. Solera, an asylee whose attendance was promoted by the group Church World Service, said he was unimpressed with the president’s remarks.

“While the president attempted to bring Americans together, he continues to label all immigrants as criminals and ignore that good work that we have done for this country,” Solera said in a statement. “A wall wouldn’t have stopped me from being a victim of human trafficking, and a wall will not address the humanitarian crisis this administration has created at the border.”

However, Trump did manage to achieve at least one moment of bipartisan celebration when he mentioned the story of Alice Johnson. Johnson, who was also in attendance, was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 as a first-time nonviolent drug offender, but the president said she responded by spending the next two decades becoming a prison minister and “inspiring others to choose a better path.”

Trump explained he gave her clemency on June 6, 2018, but said her story is a reminder of the need for criminal justice reform such as the First Step Act, a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation. Although some Democrats and progressive clergy members argued the bill, which allows thousands of people to earn an earlier release from prison, didn’t go far enough, it enjoyed passionate support from many faith leaders — particularly evangelicals— and passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate before being signed into law in December.

“Alice, thank you for reminding us that we always have the power to shape our own destiny,” Trump said, calling her a “terrific woman.”

As he spoke, Johnson, wiping away tears, stood and waved to the crowd. Virtually every lawmaker in both parties rose to applaud.

“America is a nation that believes in redemption,” the president added.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

46 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I wouldn’t know. I refused to listen to a fake speech ghost-written (like “Art of the Deal”) for a fake president who has told to date 8459 documented lies in 745 days as fake president. Why spend even a nanosecond listening to someone with that kind of track record of near-total dishonesty? Besides which, he’ll renege on everything he said within a week, so what’s the point? I watched “Lord of the Rings” for the 15th time instead. Time much better spent.

  • God bless Donald Trump.
    Yes to America.
    No to socialism.
    Yes to life.
    No to ILLEGAL immigration.
    Yes to business and energy independence.
    No to regulation.

    A lot different than the VA and N.Y. democrats who are racists, sexual abusers and baby killers.

  • Thank you for demonstrating conservative christians will make excuses for anything Trump says and does. Even after doing deliberate harm to them and their interests.

    Making America a laughingstock and miring our economy in useless trade wars
    https://www.politico.com/story/2018/11/29/trump-trade-war-economic-reality-996862

    Deliberately harming the interests of those who work for a living. Especially his own voting base
    https://www.theroot.com/white-tax-tears-trump-voters-are-now-realizing-theyve-1832359811

    Trying to turn women into chattel property of the state

    Yes to illegal immigration at his own properties. Yes to harming children and holding them ransom
    https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/06/politics/trump-bedminster-club-undocumented-workers/index.html

    Yes to harming the interests of the public to serve corporate and wealthy interests.

  • CORRECTION, J.J.: “Trump’s State of the Union garners [76% APPROVINGLY POSITIVE] reactions among faith groups”! – polls confirm:

    (1) “Most viewers approved of Trump’s second State of the Union address”, CBS News, February 6, 2019.

    (2) “CNN Instant Poll: 76% Of Viewers Approved Of Trump State Of The Union”, RealClear Politics, February 5, 2019.

    (3) “76 percent approve of Trump’s State of the Union address, poll shows”, Advance Local Media, February 6, 2019.

  • We would be better served by a president and a party of the president who would speak of “principled realism” by telling people what to expect for health insurance now that a GOP judge has declared PPACA unconstitutional. Recognition of one capital as opposed to another capital in Israel? THAT does not actually have any effect at all on any U.S. citizen in this country. Seriously, it doesn’t. So, where are your Evangelicals? Hot on the trail of adequately protecting their Christian families from medical/financial catastrophe? Or off in theology fog not giving a hoot about you?

  • I liked the first installment, “Fellowship of the Ring,” best of all. The more CGI they added in the later films, including The Hobbit series, the less I enjoyed them. Sometimes less really is more.

  • Lowest unemployment among minorities in history.

    100 months of sustained growth.

    Redrafting of NAFTA to a more equitable balance.

    Yes, a yellow dog democrat in favor of no borders at all and playing patty cakes with Western Europe will be upset. Good.

    He’s gotten done more in two years than his predecessor got done in eight.

  • Those are words, not deeds. So a lot of people thought his speech writer did a good job. They ring hollow. Presidential approval ratings remain in the basement.

  • In other words, “Yes to adulterers. Yes to pathological liars. Yes to sexual offenders. Yes to financial secrecy, white supremacy, and campaign illegalities. Yes to TREASON.”

  • Hey, joy behar just got caught now…
    Can’t wait to see what the righteous Whoopi has to say about that.
    And democrats are supposed to be the good guys.
    Pffffft..

  • Nope. Never said it and don’t believe it.
    But I am waiting for those of you – namely you – who crucified Kavanaugh or call out trump to admit that there is stupidity on both sides.
    The media certainly isn’t enraged with the three stooges in VA like they were with Kavanaugh.
    Double standards is a problem for all of us.

  • I don’t have double standards. I don’t see political parties in that way, as you apparently and hypocritically do. As for Kavanaugh, he’s a belligerent drunk with little control of his emotions.

  • No, I don’t endorse what he did. At least he admitted it and apologized. When was the last time you heard a Republican express remorse for past mistakes??

  • Oh; ok.
    So if you DID do something and apologize – your cool.
    BUT, if you DIDNT do anything, but are accused – that’s not cool.
    Gotcha.
    I’m really confused with the rule set.
    FYI. – joy behar was given a pass for her blackface costume.
    Double standard much?

  • “He’s gotten done more in two years than his predecessor got done in eight.”

    100 months means that the growth started long before Trump entered office (24 months versus 76 months prior). How do you explain that? And, please show your math.

  • Of course you’re confused, because you’re fabricating things I never said. Doesn’t your religion teach forgiveness and absolution? In Catholicism, it is one of the sacraments. You just toss that out the window? You don’t think people deserve the right to change and become better humans?

  • She can’t say too much as she joined with Ted Danson when he went blackface back in the 90’s and never told him it was a bad idea.

  • TRUE OR FALSE: “Presidential approval ratings remain in the basement.”

    FALSE. Because, “a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that, if the 2020 presidential race was between Trump and Ocasio-Cortez, 43% of Likely U.S. Voters would vote for Trump, while 40% would vote for Ocasio-Cortez.” Which can only mean two things. One, that’s 4 more years of Trump after winning that race! Two, you are a sore loser as per this video, https://youtu.be/wDYNVH0U3cs.

    Source: “Ocasio-Cortez vs. Trump, and the Winner Is…”, Rasmussen Reports, January 15, 2019.

  • Fake News, the usual propaganda. Ocasio-Cortez isn’t running for President — she is too young.

    The only losers here are those who support an adulterous, lying, sociopathic, incompetent, treasonous, criminal as their “President”, but that’s what you deserve.

  • Oh, she was plenty to say about any conservative…
    Yet, no outrage from the “ladies” on the view.

  • Hmm, Trump claimed that the evil caravan brown people were taking all the jobs away from the good poor white people. Which is it?

  • Canine & Cruddie must’ve fallen thru the cracks in the system at the same time. Who fell on whose head, though, is the mystery.

    “Ocasio-Cortez isn’t running for President” – well, duh. Omydoodness, right?

  • 6 More Years, Trump!
    6 More Years, Trump!
    6 More Years, Trump!
    6 More Years, Trump!

    (I’m hoping, though, it’ll be a race neck to neck between Donald & Tulsi, come Election 2020.)

  • TEASER FOR YOU: “Tolkien stated quite plainly that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,’ a fact that remains both unacknowledged and unexplored”.

    FROM: William Newton, “Big New York Exhibition Of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Artwork Leaves Out His Christianity: Always thinking about the mythology he was inventing, Tolkien would draw on any paper that came to hand as he imagined the peoples and cultures of Middle-earth”, The Federalist, February 5, 2019.

    URL: https://thefederalist.com/2019/02/06/big-new-york-exhibition-j-r-r-tolkiens-artwork-leaves-christianity/

  • But remember to credit Evangelicals for NOT proposing raw genocide against Cows and Airplanes merely to satisfy the Global Warming Religion.

    (This Ocasio-Cortez entity is beginning to embarrass her fellow Democrats, I suspect!!)

  • They’ll have to pry that cheeseburger from my cold, dead hand!

    I read some of that proposal. Ambitious, well-meaning but totally impractical. Not a chance of it getting passed. We need a reasonable plan to reduce greenhouse gases but this is not it.

  • Yeah, I’ve been looking for a job stooping over in ag fields under a broiling sun for 12 hours weeding and picking vegetables for low wages and no benefits but those darned Mexicans have taken all those jobs away!

  • This is an odd response to a comment from someone who would prefer a president who actually was focused on “principled realism” as opposed to one using that phrase to woo in those whose minds are forever denying the real and focusing on the unreal.

  • I like cheeseburgers too. I’d like them better if they were 1/3 beef and 2/3 soy or cereal filler. That way, our hands might even postpone the condition of being cold and dead.

ADVERTISEMENTs