When President Donald Trump showed up at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va., last Sunday on his way back from a round of golf, he put the congregation’s pastor in a bind. When the White House asked David Platt to pray for the president, he knew he was in trouble no matter what he did. A refusal would have been considered an insult to the presidency as well as counter to the demands of his faith. And going through with the prayer would be construed by some as an endorsement of Trump.
Platt’s choice was obvious. He prayed for Trump.
But the response both from some of Platt’s congregants as well as a host of critics in the media and elsewhere was intense. The mere act of asking the Almighty to grant wisdom to Trump was considered both offensive and an act of unwholesome partisanship, as if wishing the president well co-opted the pastor, the church, and all its congregants in some nefarious scheme.
Within days, Platt was expressing remorse for his action. Though he didn’t apologize as some outlets inaccurately reported, he did acknowledge that some of his congregants were “hurt” by the prayer. He went on to say,
This weighs heavy on my heart. I love every member of this church, and I only want to lead us with God’s Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God.
It wasn’t just Trump’s opponents that caused this problem.
A few days before Trump’s surprise appearance in church, Franklin Graham, the son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham and a leading preacher and faith spokesman in his own right, called for Sunday, June 2, to be a special day of prayer for President Trump. Graham asked that churchgoers pray for God to help Trump and to “protect him from his enemies.”
Graham is one of Trump’s leading supporters, and there’s little question that his request had partisan motivations. Religious opponents of the president responded with denunciations of attempts to hijack the Christian Sabbath. According to Peter Wehner, the head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Graham’s stunt discredited Christian witness.
But even if “Pray for Trump” had political motivations, there is nothing out of the ordinary about what Graham was advocating.
It’s hardly surprising that anything relating to Trump would cause controversy. The nation is polarized between Trump supporters and detractors, with each side reading, listening, and watching different sets of media outlets and drawing wildly different conclusions from events .
But the fact that merely the act of a congregation praying for the country’s leader is now viewed as controversial demonstrates two things that are far more troubling than even the most bitter disagreement about politics or cultural issues.
First of all, anger about Trump has transcended politics.
The wild talk heard during the 2016 campaign about Trump being a clear and present danger to American liberty wasn’t just partisan hyperbole. The conviction that his behavior is not merely offensive but indicative of a desire to overturn democratic norms is so deep that his political foes consider him the moral equivalent of an outlaw against whom any tactic is permissible. Two and a half years of normative conservative governance by Trump, albeit accompanied by sometimes intemperate tweets, have not changed many minds about that.
As we also see when administration officials or congressional supporters are hounded out of public eating places by those who feel it is an outrage to share space with a political opponent, any act of civility toward Trump or respect for the office he occupies is apparently too much to ask of those who oppose him.
The second problem is that the prayer controversy is more proof of the way politics has replaced religion for many Americans. More people now claim they would oppose their children marrying someone from a different political party than say they would oppose a spouse who practiced a different religion.
This is not only evidence of the secularization of society. It shows that faith in a particular set of political attitudes — and disgust for those who have different views — has become a replacement for religion in the lives of many Americans.
This is very problematic, since the American political system and democracy itself, even in times of greatest division, requires a consensus about the need to agree to disagree and to accept with good grace democratically arrived-at outcomes that some citizens opposed. And religious institutions have a key role to play. Most churches, synagogues, mosques, and religious centers of every conceivable denomination routinely offer prayers for the government and elected officials of the United States. That’s true not only of those institutions that eagerly embraced the opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to Trump but also of those denominations whose members are overwhelmingly hostile to the president, be they liberal Presbyterians or Reconstructionist Jews.
Such prayers are published in prayer books from which the faithful read during services. One such is the one written by Louis Ginsburg in 1928, included in many of those used by Conservative Judaism:
Our God and God of our ancestors: Accept with mercy our prayer for our land and its government. Pour out your blessing on this land, on its President, judges, officers, and officials, who work faithfully for the public good. Teach them from the laws of Your Torah, enlighten them with the rules of Your justice, so that peace, tranquility, happiness, and freedom will never depart from our land.
Send Your Spirit to touch the hearts of our nation’s leaders. Open their minds to the great worth of human life and the responsibilities that accompany human freedom. Remind Your people that true happiness is rooted in seeking and doing Your will.
Such prayers recognize that good citizens should understand that all elected leaders deserve our help as well as our prayers. Moreover, they are also in the grand tradition of national days of prayer such as those that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed.
But above and beyond the collapse of a religious consensus is the sheer hypocrisy of the condemnation of those who followed Graham’s call for divine intervention on Trump’s behalf. For all of the complaints about prayers for the president turning churches into partisan battlefields, there is also nothing new about using houses of worship to rally the faithful behind specific causes and sometimes even specific politicians.
African-American churches are well-known venues for electioneering, with an invitation to speak being a not-so-subtle endorsement. Various denominations have also taken stands on issues such as illegal immigration that place them on one side of a harsh political divide, whether or not they declare their houses of worship to be “sanctuaries” for those on the run from the law.
Seen from these perspectives, the notion that there is anything out of the ordinary in Graham’s campaign is absurd. More to the point, it’s difficult to argue that those who believe in the power of prayer shouldn’t pray that those leaders with whom they disagree should get divine inspiration or enlightenment.
It is only in the context of a country that has lost the ability to credit our political opponents with good motives that it’s possible to object to prayers for the government or the president. In such circumstances, prayers are needed not so much for Trump as for the voters.