WASHINGTON (RNS) — President Trump delivered a speech before a sprawling crowd gathered on the National Mall for this year’s anti-abortion March for Life demonstration, making him the first president ever to offer an in-person address to the conservative-leaning gathering where religion and politics are known to mix.
“All of us here understand an eternal truth: Every child is a precious and sacred gift from God,” Trump said on Friday (Jan 24). “Together, we must protect, cherish and defend the dignity and the sanctity of every human life. When we see the image of a baby in the womb, we glimpse the majesty of God's creation.”
He also lauded anti-abortion activists who “make it your life’s mission to help spread God’s grace.”
Support for Trump was strong at the event, which welcomed delegations from Catholic and evangelical schools from across the country. Many participants — including some who appeared to be clergy — wore red hats and shirts adorned with Trump's campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Standing along the curb as the masses processed by was James Gebhart, a Roman Catholic seminarian studying in Baltimore. He said he appreciated Trump’s speech and hoped it would draw more attention to the march.
“I think it was good that he came here to show that support publicly and in person,” said Gebhart, who noted this year’s March for Life appeared much larger than in years past. "(Trump) actually talks about God in his talks, and he recognizes what life is and recognizes the sacredness of that life. He's willing to say that to people, and to a country that needs to hear it.”
Jessica Hardman, an evangelical Christian student from Colorado Christian University, also expressed excitement at the president’s presence.
“It's so cool that our president is coming to this,” she said.
Hardman, a sophomore, said she and nearly 200 of her CCU classmates flew out from Colorado earlier this week to attend Friday’s gathering, where they acted as flag-bearers at the front of the march.
“Christ has called us to love our neighbor … and loving our neighbor means looking out for the least of these,” Ethan Van Buskirk, president of CCU for Life, said as he stood in front of a column of anti-abortion protesters that stretched for blocks. “The most vulnerable people in our society right now are the unborn.”
Trump’s address was preceded by a video message from Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, who were in Rome after visiting with Pope Francis earlier in the day. The vice president said in the video that he thanked the pope "for all that he and Catholic Americans have done to defend the sanctity of human life in the history of this movement."
Pence also reportedly told the pope that the visit “made me a hero” back in the United States.
As a litany of speakers addressed the crowd, attendees waved signs with scripture references or religious slogans such as “Pray to end abortion” and “Let God plan parenthood.” While some referenced pop culture — one sign featured the slogan “I’m pro-Baby” next to an image of “Baby Yoda” from the Disney television series "The Mandalorian" — many were overtly political: One sign read “Stop abortion, vote Republican.”
Still others at the event, where the theme was “pro-life is pro-woman,” brandished signs that read “Pro-Life Voices for Trump,” a reference to a new initiative announced by the president’s reelection campaign on Friday morning. According to campaign officials, the group is co-chaired by Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List, and the Rev. Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest and national director of Priests for Life.
“From appointing pro-life judges to defunding Planned Parenthood, President Trump’s track record demonstrates he’s the most pro-life President in history,” read a statement from Dannenfelser.
Also listed among the “key members” of the group were Paula White, who was recently named head of the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative; Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council.
Not everyone in the crowd was wholly supportive of the president, however. A group of Franciscan friars dressed in brown robes was vocally critical of Trump’s policies unrelated to abortion, arguing that his administration’s approach to climate change, immigration and war is “anti-life.” The group handed out signs to marchers as they passed and brandished a banner that read "Choose Life - Not War."
“The president said today ‘every child is a precious and sacred gift of God.’ I emphatically agree. But I want a country that is 100% pro-life,” said Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, one of the Franciscans. “Aren't children in the path of hurricanes and wildfires and climate disruption sacred gifts of God? Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg are holding the moral position, the pro-life position, and the president has a deeply anti-life position on climate change. Aren’t children at the border sacred gifts from God? The president is acting against life in so many ways, acting against the moral teachings of the Catholic Church on climate change, immigration, health care and war. As a pro-life follower of Jesus, I find it morally offensive to have President Trump as the main speaker at the March for Life."
Trump’s speech adds to a growing list of efforts to shore up his support among conservative Christians, one of the most consistently loyal portions of his base. He spoke at an evangelical church in Miami earlier this month to kick off his “Evangelicals for Trump” campaign initiative, where he also referenced his opposition to abortion and told the crowd that he believes “we have God on our side.”
Just two weeks later, the Trump administration announced efforts to protect students who want to pray in public schools and make it easier for religious groups that provide social services to access federal funds.
The overtures may be an attempt to offset any potential losses Trump may endure among evangelicals who, like the Franciscans, are frustrated by other elements of his presidency. In December, then-editor of Christianity Today Mark Galli penned a bombshell editorial in which he called for Trump’s removal from office, explaining that while he appreciated some of the president’s conservative policies, the case for impeachment and removal is strong.
“Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?” Galli wrote.
But even if the president is ousted by impeachment or this year’s election, CCU student Jordan Jantzen — who said he supports Trump — insisted that the anti-abortion movement will outlast any politician.
“Whether it be a leader from any party, if they're willing to stand up for the right to life and for the sanctity of life, we are a hundred percent behind those people — because we believe that the sanctity of human life is of utmost importance,” he said.