WASHINGTON - Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the House majority whip who was shot last year during a GOP congressional baseball practice, will be the keynote speaker at Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast, a massive ecumenical annual gathering put on by a group of Christians who want to focus on a shared admiration of Jesus. Following tradition, President Donald Trump is also expected to speak at the breakfast, which will be held in the Washington Hilton and will be livestreamed at around 8 a.m.
Several media reports earlier this week suggested that Eagles' quarterback Carson Wentz, who has spoken about how faith helped him cope with his knee injury that cut his NFL season short, was supposed to speak in place of Vice President Mike Pence, who is in South Korea for the Olympics. But a congressional staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Scalise is the featured speaker.
Scalise was shot in the hip last summer when a gunman targeted Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity game, wounding five people. Scalise, who went through several surgeries and returned to Congress 15 weeks later, has said that the shooting gave him a "renewed faith."
"It's only strengthened my faith in God, and it's really crystallized what shows up as the goodness in people," Scalise said in his first address to Congress after he returned in September.
Scalise, who is Catholic, said when he was laying on the field, the first thing he did was pray. "And I will tell you, it gave me an unbelievable sense of calm knowing that at that point it was in God's hands," he said. "But I prayed for very specific things, and I will tell you, pretty much every one of those prayers was answered and there were some pretty challenging prayers I was putting in God's hands."
Every president since President Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the event, which draws several thousands of people from all over the world and especially attracts evangelicals. Last year, Trump promised to end the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the tax code that prevents nonprofits like churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. However, it would take an act of Congress to repeal the measure, and attempts from Republican leaders to do so last year were unsuccessful.
Trump also spoke several times of the need to protect religious liberty, an issue that resonates with many evangelicals in his base.
"America will flourish, as long as our liberty, and in particular our religious liberty is allowed to flourish," Trump said.
The National Prayer Breakfast is put on by a group called The Fellowship Foundation, which was long run by Doug Coe, who died last year. Now the breakfast is organized by a team of seven people that nominates about five potential speakers to congressional bipartisan co-chairs who usually pick the featured speaker, according to Bob Hunter, a member of the foundation who has long helped with the breakfast.
The speeches are not supposed to be political, Hunter said, but some speakers, including presidents, have done so in the past.
"Each president presents a different set of problems," Hunter said.
Some of the keynote addresses have drawn attention for politicizing the event. The most famous example, Hunter suggested, was when Mother Teresa, a nun and missionary in Kolkata, India, spoke forcefully against abortion in front of President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton, who support abortion rights.
"People make speeches that are inappropriate, they can get political a little bit, but that always goes against what they're asked to do," Hunter said. "It's very clear they are not to make it political."
The committee that handles the prayer breakfast is made up of Protestants and Catholics, and members make a point of inviting people from different faiths to the event.
Past keynote speakers have included Bono; television producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey; and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Last year, the keynote was Barry Black, the first African American and the first Seventh-day Adventist chaplain of the Senate.
Author Information: Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a religion reporter, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and...everything.