By GRIFFIN CONNOLLY and KYLE STEWART
Vice President Mike Pence denounced terrorism in the Middle East and championed President Donald Trump’s early anti-abortion initiatives in an address Tuesday at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
In his remarks, the vice president affirmed Trump’s commitment to a socially conservative policy agenda.
“American Catholics have an ally in President Donald Trump,” Pence said, in a staccato rhythm, to a crowd of more than a thousand, chowing down on chive-sprinkled eggs and fried sausage links.
“I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life,” he said.
Pence cited Trump’s January executive order cutting off U.S. aid to overseas health centers that provide abortions and a March bill (for which Pence cast the tiebreaking vote in the Senate) that scrapped an Obama-era regulation preventing states from denying Title X federal family planning funds to abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.
He also pointed to Trump’s Supreme Court appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch, whom Pence described as “a man in the mold of the late and great Justice Antonin Scalia.”
Pence also used the platform to condemn Islamic terrorists in the Middle East, asserting that they “harbor a special hatred for the followers of Christ.”
He described the Islamic State terrorist group as a brutal regime that has unleashed “a savagery unseen in the Middle East since the Middle Ages.”
Pence’s comments at the Catholic gathering come on the heels of Trump’s first foreign trip, which included a stop at the Vatican to visit Pope Francis, who has sometimes bucked conventional thinking among the Catholic Church’s upper clergy and the conservative Catholic base in the U.S.
During Trump’s visit, the pope tried to persuade the president to keep the U.S. in the 195-nation Paris climate agreement that was negotiated under former President Barack Obama. On Thursday, the president announced that the U.S. would be leaving the pact.
And Trump memorably clashed with the pope during the former’s rough-and-tumble presidential campaign over Trump’s proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Francis told reporters last year that a politician who seeks to build walls instead of bridges was “not Christian.”
Just a few decades ago, many considered an affiliation with the Catholic Church a political liability; it nearly cost John F. Kennedy the 1960 presidential election.
The 115th Congress includes 170 Catholics, by far the largest number of any religious denomination in both chambers.
Twenty-eight percent of Republican members of Congress affiliate themselves with the church, compared to 37 percent of Democrats.
Smith cited the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew as especially important to his work in Congress.
“Whatever you do for the least of these, you do to me,” Smith said, paraphrasing the biblical verse. “And that has been my motivating scripture for all of the work on human trafficking … all the human rights work, every bit of it.”
As the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, Smith said he wholeheartedly agreed with Pence’s comment Tuesday that “life is winning in America.” Pointing to young people as the reason for this shift, Smith talked about a recent discussion with high schoolers in his district.
“They asked me about the life issue and several came up after to me and said, ‘I’m with you on that,’” Smith recalled. “Thirty years ago, I would have been booed, so I have seen a transformation that is very profound among young people and their support for life.”
Correa couldn’t be reached for comment. A spokesman later said his Catholic faith is “something that’s very important to him.”
The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast bills itself as a nonpartisan event, though the mood of the audience trended conservative.
Pence received a lengthy standing ovation as he addressed his vote to overturn the Obama administration’s regulation shielding federal funding for Planned Parenthood from state interference.
“I think he hit a home run,” Gerry Giblin, a prayer breakfast board member, said of the vice president’s speech. “He shares all the values of the Catholic Church and religious liberty. … I think he really solidified himself as a leader of the conservative religious group.”
Other members of the audience agreed, indicating they were particularly happy with Trump’s executive order in May, which sought to undermine the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law which bans nontaxpaying groups, including churches, from political activity. That same Trump order also calls on the departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services to amend Obama-era regulations barring companies from denying their employees free contraception as part of their health care benefits packages.
“[Pence’s] comments on religious freedom, I think that’s very important,” said Kevin Francis, a Catholic for more than 45 years, who attended the breakfast.
“I think that’s the No. 1 right you have as an American and as a human being,” he said. “Hopefully, that’s heartfelt — it seemed to be really heartfelt.”