SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump promised ongoing support for religious freedom during Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast while celebrating some of his administration's most controversial faith-related moves.
"I will never let you down, I can say that," he told the mostly Christian audience.
Trump has become a hero to many conservative religious Americans over his first two years in office, championing faith-based adoption agencies and working to protect Christians in the Middle East. At the prayer breakfast, he highlighted these and other efforts, condemning abortion rights advocates and celebrating Karen Pence's return to part-time work at a Christian school.
"As president, I will always cherish, honor and protect the believers who uplift our communities and sustain our nation to ensure that people of faith can always contribute to our society," he said.
Sometimes, this protection amounts to discrimination against the LGBTQ community and others, according to progressive religious freedom advocates. They've criticized Trump for siding with religiously affiliated agencies and businesses that won't work with LGBTQ couples, non-Christians or anyone else who doesn't share their beliefs.
"The Trump administration (uses) religion to advance a regressive political agenda that harms others," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, last month after news broke that the administration would allow a faith-based foster care agency in South Carolina to turn away same-sex couples and non-Christians.
While around 7 in 10 white evangelical Protestants (68 percent) have a favorable view of Trump, similar numbers view him negatively among black Protestants (80 percent), Hispanic Catholics (74 percent) and non-Christian religious Americans (73 percent), according to Public Religion Research Institute.
Trump's message resonates most among those who feel like their beliefs are under attack in American culture and by Democratic leaders, said Jeff Hunt, a vice president of Colorado Christian University who has attended multiple prayer breakfasts, to The Washington Post.
"Part of the reason I think evangelicals are so attracted to the president is he stood up for the importance of religious values in the public square," Hunt said.
At the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump was addressing a friendly crowd and had to pause his speech for applause several times. Participants seemed particularly excited about the president's comments on abortion.
"All children, born and unborn, are made in the holy image of God," Trump said.
Abortion rights also came up during this week's State of the Union address, which Trump referenced repeatedly during his Thursday remarks. He has said he will work on legislation banning late-term abortion, responding to efforts in states like New York and Virginia to expand abortion rights.
The Trump administration may also work to expand protections for faith-based adoption agencies, which risk losing government funding if they require prospective clients to meet certain religious standards. Many states have considered or passed legislation protecting such organizations, but they still face legislative and legal challenges.
"My administration is working to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies are able to help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs," Trump said Thursday.
The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual, bipartisan event that brings together faith leaders, political lobbyists and government officials. "Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the event that draws several thousand people," The Washington Post reported.
This year's program included a mix of conservative and progressive speakers, including Gary Haugen, a human rights activist and International Justice Mission founder, and Christian performing artist Chris Tomlin, who provided praise music between speakers. The Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church who is famous for his remarks at last year's royal wedding, read from 1 Corinthians 13 and offered a brief reflection on love that some saw as a rebuke to Trump's leadership style.66 comments on this story
"This passage is often read at weddings, but when the Apostle Paul first wrote it he wasn't thinking about a wedding. He was worried about a community that had divisions in itself and he wrote to show them the way," the Rev. Curry said.
Overall, the event celebrated the power of faith and prayer, praising believers for their work for justice around the world. Prayer makes amazing things possible, even an end to political gridlock, Trump said.
"On today and every day, let us pray for the future of our country," he said.