Trump’s National Prayer Declaration in Historical Context

adams-proclomation

Here is Trump’s proclamation:

In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty.  As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.  But in this time we must not cease asking God for added wisdom, comfort, and strength, and we must especially pray for those who have suffered harm or who have lost loved ones.  I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.

As your President, I ask you to pray for the health and well-being of your fellow Americans and to remember that no problem is too big for God to handle.  We should all take to heart the holy words found in 1 Peter 5:7:  “Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.”  Let us pray that all those affected by the virus will feel the presence of our Lord’s protection and love during this time.  With God’s help, we will overcome this threat.

On Friday, I declared a national emergency and took other bold actions to help deploy the full power of the Federal Government to assist with efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.  I now encourage all Americans to pray for those on the front lines of the response, especially our Nation’s outstanding medical professionals and public health officials who are working tirelessly to protect all of us from the coronavirus and treat patients who are infected; all of our courageous first responders, National Guard, and dedicated individuals who are working to ensure the health and safety of our communities; and our Federal, State, and local leaders.  We are confident that He will provide them with the wisdom they need to make difficult decisions and take decisive actions to protect Americans all across the country.  As we come to our Father in prayer, we remember the words found in Psalm 91:  “He is my refuge and my fortress:  my God; in him will I trust.”

As we unite in prayer, we are reminded that there is no burden too heavy for God to lift or for this country to bear with His help.  Luke 1:37 promises that “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” and those words are just as true today as they have ever been.  As one Nation under God, we are greater than the hardships we face, and through prayer and acts of compassion and love, we will rise to this challenge and emerge stronger and more united than ever before.  May God bless each of you, and may God bless the United States of America.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts.  I urge Americans of all faiths and religious traditions and backgrounds to offer prayers for all those affected, including people who have suffered harm or lost loved ones.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.

DONALD J. TRUMP

The founding fathers, of course, were divided over these kinds of proclamations.

On March 23, 1798, prior to the United States’s so-called “Quasi War” with France, president John Adams declared a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” for May 9, 1798. Here is a taste:

And as the United States of America are, at present, placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly Disposition, Conduct, and Demands of a foreign power, evinced by repeated refusals to receive our Messengers of Reconciliation and Peace, by Depradations on our Commerce, and the Infliction of Injuries on very many of our Fellow Citizens, while engaged in their lawful business on the Seas.–Under these considerations it has appeared to me that the Duty of imploring the Mercy and Benediction of Heaven on our Country demands, at this time, a special attention from its Inhabitants.

Here is what I wrote about this proclamation in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

Many perceived Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer to be little more than a political tool to win support for his own political party, the New England-concentrated Federalists.  The Federalists believed that government had the responsibility of enforcing public morality rooted in the Christian faith….Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer was endorsed by the Presbyterian Church, a denomination that was suspected by many to have secret ambitions of creating a national religious establishment.  The fast declaration was thus criticized by his Republican political enemies, including Thomas Jefferson, his eventual opponent in the next presidential election.  According to Adams, American religious denominations and sects, especially those who guarded their religious liberties closely and tended to vote Republican, cried out, “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian president.” Adams was not a Presbyterian, but his firm belief that the president should promote religion and morality did not sit well with those Christians and others who feared that such government involvement in religious matters was the first step toward tyranny and the erosion of religious freedom.  Adams would later write that his decision to call for a religious fast day may have cost him a victory in the 1800 presidential election. 

While there is certainly a tradition of these proclamations in our country’s history, there is also a tradition of presidents using these proclamations to advance a political agenda. With this in mind, Trump is both calling the nation to turn to God in this difficult moment and strengthening his evangelical base as the November elections approach.

In 1808, in light of the British impressment of American ships and the passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, New York City Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller asked president Thomas Jefferson to issue a day of fasting, humiliation, prayer. Here is a taste of his letter:

Several of my Clerical brethren, and other friends of Religion, in this city, deeply affected with the present aspect of our public affairs, have lately expressed an earnest wish that we might be called upon, as a nation, to observe a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer. Various means have been suggested for the attainment of this object. Among others, it has been proposed that the Clergy of our City, as a body, should make an application, more or less formal, to the President of the United States, requesting him, by Proclamation, to recommend such a public observance. I am not certain that such an application is determined on, even in the mind of an individual; but it has been proposed, and may possibly be made.—

The object of this letter is frankly to ask, whether such an application to you would be agreeable or otherwise. I am sensible that a question may arise, both with regard to the constitutional power of the President to act in a case of this kind, and the occasions on which it is expedient to exercise such a power, supposing it to be possessed. But on neither of these points does it become me to offer any observation. It is possible that your views of the subject might forbid you to take such a step as that which is proposed, under any circumstances: and it is also possible that an application from a body of respectable Clergymen might be considered as, in some degree, removing your objections, if any exist; at least such of them as arise from an aversion to all interference, on the part of a civil Magistrate, with the religious concerns of the community.—

Miller knew that Jefferson was no fan of these proclamations. Here is part of Jefferson’s response to Miller’s letter:

I have duly recieved your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorised to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the constitution from intermedling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. this results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the US. certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. it must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.   but it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. that is that I should indirectly assume to the US. an authority over religious exercises which the constitution has directly precluded them from. it must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it: not indeed of fine & imprisonment but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. and does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, its discipline or its doctrines: nor of the religious societies that the General government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. fasting & prayer are religious exercises. the enjoining them an act of discipline, every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises & the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets. and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. but I have ever believed that the example of State executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. be this as it may every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

As you can see, Jefferson did not believe that the United States government had the authority to issue such days of prayer. Notice that Jefferson did not agree with Adams’s previous proclamations and thus refused to follow Adams’s precedent.

What about James Madison? On June 30, 1812, as the United States entered a war with England in 1812, president Madison received a letter from Jacob Jones Janeway, the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and clerk at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which had met in Philadelphia the previous month.  Janeway wrote:

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, during their sessions in May last, recommended to all the churches under their care, to observe the last Thursday in July next as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. The Synod of the Associate Reformed Church, which was sitting in this City at the same time, concurred in the measure: and the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, which lately met at Albany, adopted it, and have recommended the observance of that day by their churches. And I have been informed that, at the request of the last body presented, through the Legislature of the State of New York, to the Governor, he has consented to recommend the observance of the same day to all religious denominations in that state. A petition is now preparing to be sent to the Governor of this State, requesting him to recommend a concurrence in the religious exercises of that day to the people throughout this state.

From the preceding statement, it will be seen, that a large portion of the citizens of these United States, will be engaged in the observance of the day already mentioned: and I take the liberty of suggesting, that it will be an accommodation to them, as well as secure a more general concurrence in the devotions of the day, if your Excellency should think it proper to select that as the day to be recommended to the people of the United States of America, as a day of humiliation and prayer to Almighty God. What has been written must be the apology for this intrusion, by Your Excellency’s humble & obedient servant.

Madison did not heed Janeway’s call for a July day of prayer, but he eventually did issue such a presidential proclamation for August:

Whereas the Congress of the United States, by a joint Resolution of the two Houses, have signified a request, that a day may be recommended, to be observed by the People of the United States, with religious solemnity, as a day of public Humiliation and Prayer:1 and whereas such a recommendation will enable the several religious denominations and societies so disposed, to offer, at one and the same time, their common vows and adorations to Almighty God, on the solemn occasion produced by the war, in which he has been pleased to permit the injustice of a foreign power to involve these United States; I do therefore recommend the third Thursday in August next, as a convenient day, to be so set apart, for the devout purposes of rendering to the Sovereign of the Universe, and the Benefactor of mankind, the public homage due to his holy attributes; of acknowleging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness, and His assistance in the great duties of repentance & amendment; and, especially, of offering fervent supplications, that in the present season of calamity and war, he would take the American People under His peculiar care and protection; that He would guide their public councils, animate their patriotism, and bestow His blessing on their arms; that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice & of concord, and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them; and, finally, that turning the hearts of our enemies from the violence and injustice which sway their councils against us, He would hasten a restoration of the blesings of Peace. Given at Washington the ninth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twelve.

As historian John Ragosta argues in his book Religious Freedom: Jeffersonian’s Legacy, America’s Creed, Madison was always uncomfortable with these kinds of declarations. Ragosta writes,

[Like Jefferson], Madison…also struggled with proclamations.  During his administration, Congress asked for prayer proclamations at a time when the country faced the crisis of the War of 1812, a political crisis of confidence was almost overwhelming Madison, and dissolution of the union seemed a real possibility.  Even then, Madison was uneasy with the exercise. In 1813, he acquiesced to one declaration noting that Congress “signified a request” for a day of prayer, but he still moved cautiously, issuing “this my Proclamation, recommending to all, who shall be piously disposed…guided only by their free choice.” Later he explained: “I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unit in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms.”  Still, after the crisis passed, Madison regretted having issued even these qualified proclamations, viewing them as exceeding constitutional bounds. Government religious proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”  In addition to the problem of endorsement, Madison was concerned with the use (abuse) of religion to support political institutions (again, “priestcraft”).

If you’ve read this far, I hope this post give you some historical context for Trump’s proclamation today.  These proclamations have always been contested, political, and religious.

What Should We Make of This Picture?

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Mike Pence’s Coronavirus Task Force praying in the White House

So what she would we make of this?

  1. Prayer is a natural response to this pandemic.  We need more of it.
  2. Thoughts and prayers are not enough.  Pence and his team need to do something to stop the spread. I am glad to see Anthony Fauci is in the room.
  3. I have no problem with these men and women praying.  But why was it necessary to take a picture?  And why was it necessary to distribute it?  I am sure this photo will help the Trump-Pence campaign appeal to evangelical voters.
  4. If prayer happens and no one notices it, is it still a prayer?  This might be an interesting question for the members of the Trump administration and the court evangelicals who like to pray publicly for the POTUS. (Mt 6:6)

My Piece on Trump’s Prayer Breakfast Speech is Now Up at *USA TODAY*

Trump USA Today

The editors at USA Today asked me to reflect on Trump’s performance at today’s National Prayer Breakfast.  Here is a taste of my piece:

Prayer is a spiritual discipline. In the Christian tradition, spiritual disciplines take the focus off us and put it on God and others. They are practices that relieve us of our narcissism.

The National Prayer Breakfast is a bipartisan event. It brings politicians and religious leaders together to seek common ground through a shared faith.

While the breakfast is not without its problems, as we saw in the recent Netflix documentary “The Family,” it is the closest Washington comes each year to laying aside political bickering and seeking something akin to what Jesus called for in the Gospel of John, chapter 17 when he prayed that his followers would be “brought to complete unity.”

But President Donald Trump showed at the Thursday morning breakfast that he lacks the spiritual compass and moral understanding to rise to such an occasion.

Read the rest here.

Trump’s Guidance on Prayer in Schools Was “hardly worth the excitement”

See you at the pole

“See You at the Pole”: Perfectly legal

Here is Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty:

(RNS) — When President Donald Trump leaked, at a rally for evangelical supporters in Florida on Jan. 3, that his administration would issue guidance about prayer in public schools, he started a mini-firestorm, and not just among the fired-up crowd.

When the guidance was released on Thursday (Jan. 16), however, it turned out to be hardly worth the excitement. According to long-settled legal and constitutional protections for religious expression in the public schools, public school students are free to pray, wear religious clothing and accessories and talk about their beliefs. Religious groups can meet on school grounds, and teachers can teach about religion as an academic subject. Religious liberty, in short, is already a treasured value in our nation’s public schools.

So why are the president and White House staffers making inflammatory and misleading statements, claiming our constitutional rights are under attack?

It could be that the administration simply wanted to remind public schools of their constitutional duties.

Tyler is being polite.  She knows why Trump felt the need to affirm an already existing Supreme Court decision that allows students to pray in school. He wanted to use the spiritual discipline of prayer to score political points with his conservative evangelical base.  Trump is not savvy enough to think of this on his own.  One of his so-called evangelical advisers probably told him to do this.

So let’s get the facts on the proverbial table:

  1. The Supreme Court made mandatory prayer in schools unconstitutional in the 1962 Engle v. Vitale case.  Mandatory prayer is still unconstitutional.  Nothing Trump did on Thursday changed this.  I have now heard from several Trump voters who think that Trump somehow overturned Engle v. Vitale with his remarks.  He did not.  Not even the Trump Administration is saying this.  But I am sure that Trump wouldn’t mind it if some uneducated evangelicals believed that he restored mandatory school prayer.
  2. In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed in Sante Fe ISD v. Doe that “The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment prevent the government from making any law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  By no means do these commands impose a prohibition of all religious activity in our public schools.  See, e. g., Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 508 U. S. 384, 395 (1993); Board of Ed. of Westside Community Schools (Dist. 66) v. Mergens, 496 U. S. 226 (1990); Wallace, 472 U. S., at 59. Indeed, the common purpose of the Religion Clauses “is to secure religious liberty.” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421, 430 (1962). Thus, nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.”
  3. In other words, Trump’s so-called “guidance” merely affirmed what was already in place.
  4. Have there been cases when school districts, acting in bad faith, have failed to uphold this constitutional right to pray in schools?  Of course.  But as Binghamton University historian Adam Laats pointed out yesterday, these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
  5. In my chapter on evangelical fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I wrote, “Donald Trump himself, during his 2016 campaign, [claimed] that crime was rising when it was actually falling.  He attempted to portray refugees and undocumented immigrants as threats to the American public even though the chances that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 3.6. million; the chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is one in 10.9 million per year.  One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch on fire.  Yet Trump managed to convince Americans that immigrants are “imminent threats” to their safety.”  I would love to get an idea of how many violations of Sante Fe ISD v. Doe occur each year and compare that number to the number of voluntary public school prayer groups that function everyday in full accordance with Sante Fe ISD v. Doe.

Here is Tyler again:

…some comments officials made before and in their announcement of the guidance vastly overstated the supposed problem and echoed the claims of Christian nationalism, a dangerous movement that harms both Christianity and the United States by implying that to be a good American, one must be Christian.

Christian nationalists often point to two Supreme Court cases from the 1960s, Engel v. Vitale and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, to claim that the government “banned school prayer” or “took God out of the schools.” These are harmful misrepresentations. These cases didn’t ban the free exercise of Christian worship. They banned mandatory Bible readings and prayers written by the government. It should not be controversial to oppose government-dictated religious practice.

Instead of enforcing government-mandated religion, these Supreme Court cases ensured that public school students are free to exercise their constitutionally protected religious beliefs and affirmed the proper way to handle religion in public schools.

And it’s worked: For decades, public schools across the nation have modeled how religiously diverse populations can build relationships of trust and care, respecting the unique role that religion plays in people’s lives. Like our neighbors of all faiths, we are empowered by the First Amendment to live our beliefs in the public square, which includes the public school.

Read the rest here.

Today…

Trump Iowa

  • The trial to impeach Donald Trump got underway.
  • We are discussing the fact that Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer, told two different media outlets that Trump knew about attempts to hold aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into a political opponent and lied about it.
  • We learned that Trump broke the law by withholding Ukraine aid.
  • Trump gave a speech supporting prayer in schools.

We are living in strange times.

Court Evangelical Tony Perkins: “Donald Trump is the best president Christians have ever had.”

Perkins

Of all the court evangelicals, Tony Perkins talks the most about the contractual relationship between Donald Trump and conservative evangelical Christians.  Perkins supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP primaries, but now he is all-in for Trump.

But Perkins has been clear about one thing: if Trump stops delivering on the issues he and other evangelicals hold dear, the president can expect to lose evangelical support in 2020.  So far that is not happening.

In a piece republished at Life News, Perkins calls Trump “the best president Christians have ever had.”  Perkins may be right, assuming that one defines “Christians” as political identity group of white,  right-wing, Christian nationalist, evangelical culture warriors.

There is nothing in Perkins’s piece that we haven’t seen before.  It all comes down to abortion and religious liberty.  I critiqued this two-pronged approach to politics in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

But this time around I was struck by how court evangelicals claim that they “didn’t need a preacher in the Oval Office.”  Here is Perkins:

Christians, the president repeated, “have never had a greater champion — not even close — than you have in the White House right now. Look at the record,” Trump urged. “We’ve done things that nobody thought was possible. We’re not only defending our constitutional rights, we’re also defending religion itself, which is under siege.” That’s important, he argued, because “America was not built by religion-hating socialists. America was built by churchgoing, God-worshiping, freedom-loving patriots.”

And those patriots, President Trump insisted, are the ones being attacked. “Faith-based schools, charities, hospitals, adoption agencies, pastors were systematically targeted by federal bureaucrats and ordered to stop following their beliefs,” he pointed out. That all changed when his teams at HHS, Justice, and Education got involved rolling back the waves of hostility aimed directly at men and women of faith. “The day I was sworn in, the federal government’s war on religion came to an abrupt end,” he said. “My administration will never stop fighting for Americans of faith,” Trump vowed. “We will restore the faith as the true foundation of American life.”

Maybe that, as Pastor Jentezen Franklin prayed, is what believers appreciate most about this administration. “…America didn’t need a preacher in the Oval Office,” he said, bowing his head. “It did not need a professional politician in the Oval Office. But it needed a fighter and a champion for freedom. Lord, that is exactly what we have.” And more than that, I thought, as I watched pastors lay their hands on the president, we have a fighter who isn’t ashamed of the people he’s fighting for. After all, when was the last time you saw a president of the United States from either party surrounded by faith leaders in a completely public and unscripted prayer? It’s rare, I assure you.

On that last sentence:

Obama Prayer

OBama praying

OBama in prayer

Bush prayer

Bush project prayer

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I know Hillary has never been president, but this was too good to pass up

I am not sure if Perkins would count what is happening in these images as “public prayers.”  But I am reminded of Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

But I digress.

So what do the court evangelicals mean when they say “we didn’t need a preacher in the Oval Office?” They seem to be suggesting that they don’t need to have a person of Christian character in the office as long as he is delivering on Christian Right policy.  The court evangelicals are essentially saying that Trump’s character–the lies, the misogyny, the narcissism, the demonization of enemies–don’t matter.  “Sure he is a rough dude, and we don’t like some of his tweets, but look what he is doing for us!”  Or “At least he’s not Hillary!” (Christians are not supposed to hate, but they sure hate Hillary).

The court evangelicals have every right to think about politics in this way.  They are free to ignore Trump’s many indiscretions because he is delivering on the things they hold dear.  But if they are going to take this route they need to stop appealing to the Founding Fathers.  These framers of the Constitution understood that the leader of the United States needed to be a person of character.

Here is James Madison in Federalist 57: “The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society, and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, while they continue to hold their public trust.”

Supporters of Donald Trump must ask if he has the “wisdom” to lead us, the commitment to the “common good” (not just his so-called “base”), and the character to make us a more “virtuous” people. If the president does not measure-up in these areas, the founders believed that he should not be leading the American republic.

Here is Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68:

Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. 

“Low intrigue” and the “little arts of popularity.”  It almost sounds like Hamilton wrote this with Trump in mind.

According to the Founding Fathers, Trump is unfit for office.   The court evangelicals are supporting an unfit president and breaking with the views of the men who supposedly founded a Christian nation.  But look at the bright side: at least we get to say “Merry Christmas” again!

“Evangelicals for Trump” Rally Roundup

Miami Trump

As I glanced at the news this morning I was struck by the way that news services are headlining their articles on Trump’s speech at last night’s “Evangelicals for Trump” rally.  (See my summary here).  Here are a few of those headlines:

Washington Post: “Trump Courts Latinos in Miami as Part of Launch of Evangelical Coalition”

Asia Times: “Trump After Killing: God on Evangelicals’ Side”

New York Times: “In Miami Speech, Trump Tells Evangelical Base: God ‘Is on Our Side”

Reuters: “Trump Tells Evangelical Rally He Will Put Prayer in Schools”

Fox News: “Trump Name-Checks ‘Squad’ at Evangelical Rally: ‘They Hate Jewish People”

Court Evangelical Franklin Graham Weighs-In on Impeachment

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Here you go:

It always amazes me how these court evangelicals use prayer as a political tool. If we want to play Graham’s game we could also say that the Democrats need our prayers because they continue to face an “onslaught of lies, slander, and innuendos” from the President of the United States.  And we could add: “It’s just shameful” what the President of the United States “is putting this country through.”

Franklin is correct when he says that this nation “needs our prayers,” but I doubt God wants to hear his partisan petitions.  As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address: “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Candida Moss on “Thoughts and Prayers”

El Paso Thoughts

According to theologian Candida Moss, “thoughts and prayers” can be good things, but they alone cannot solve the gun violence problem in the United States.  To suggest otherwise is bad theology.

Agreed.

Here is a taste of her recent piece at The Daily Beast:

The idea that prayer demands action has a biblical basis. We tend to assume that characters who pray also take steps to have their requests met. Dr.Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, said, “When we read the story of Hannah praying for a child are we to assume that she stopped having sex?” Similarly most Christians (though not all) combine prayer with medical treatment when ill. When it comes to rectifying injustice and evil in the world the Epistle of James quite explicitly demands that we act: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16). 

Both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama agree. In a Sunday Angelus message in 2013, Francis said “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer… Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.” Just last year the Dalai Lama tweeted that although he is a Buddhist monk he is “skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.” 

The necessity of both prayer and action are recognized by pro-life Christians who both pray to end abortion and seek to re-legislate Roe v. Wade. As John Fea wrote this week, the thoughts and prayers excuse simply would not fly in the case of abortion. Thus, the question is not, “are thoughts and prayers sufficient?” but rather “when does the loss of human life necessitate action?” Surely, for the conscientious Christian, the answer has to be “whenever it occurs.” 

The truth of the matter is that even if miracles happen and prayer has miraculous (as well as psychological) benefits, it is simply bad theology to suggest that prayer alone can solve the problem of gun control. Petitionary prayers (prayers that ask for things) do not always deliver what a person wants. There are countless people who have faithfully prayed to God and not received the thing that they asked for. This isn’t just historically true, it’s theologically true. There are all number of reasons this is the case. In the first place, God might have other plans. So we might “ask” but not “receive” in the way that we expect or want. Arguably the best example of this is Jesus himself. According to the Gospel of Mark, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his death, Jesus kneels down to pray and asks his “Abba (Father)” to allow “the cup” (i.e. death) to pass from him. It is what he wants, but Jesus recognizes that the outcome will be what his father wants. It’s an example of obedience. but it’s also a story about a frustrated request in which through prayer Jesus discerned what he was supposed to do. It’s an important example because otherwise people who pray and don’t receive help are led to believe that they are spiritually failing.

Read the entire piece here.

Ed Stetzer on the Trump Visit to McLean Bible Church

Platt Trump

I agree with just about everything Ed Stetzer has written about this incident.  I said something similar, but not as eloquently, here.

For those Christians who have been criticizing David Platt from the left, I would ask several questions:

  1. What would you do in this situation?
  2. Even if you believe Trump is evil, how would you balance that with his human dignity?  Yes, he was there for a political opportunity, and it was disgusting, but I don’t know many members of the clergy who would turn someone away who was asking for prayer.
  3. Christians are called to pray for their leaders.  Several folks have noted that prayers for government leaders are embedded in the Book of Common Prayer.  So what happens when the president actually shows up and asks for prayer?  Does the call to pray for leaders cease to apply when the leader is actually in your presence?
  4. As most readers know, I am no fan of the president.  If Platt allowed Trump to speak I would have a serious problem with it.  If Platt used the prayer to demonize Trump’s enemies or extol Trump as King Cyrus, I would be the first one to scream.  But this is not what happened.
  5. Some people are complaining about the optics.  Of course the optics could go both ways.  And if you are a historian and you don’t like the image of Platt with his hand on Trump’s solider, then interpret the image for your readers.  Provide context.  Source the document (who is Platt?). This is what we do.

Stetzer gets it right.  Here is a taste of his piece at Christianity Today:

I was frustrated at the arm-chair quarterbacking I saw online, with some saying that he should prophetically have rebuked the president, others saying he should have denied the request, and still others wishing that he’d been more affirming of the president.

I tweeted:

I know that every person tweeting criticism of @PlattDavid would have handled it so much better if @POTUSshowed up to your place with little notice, but maybe just consider that he is not as smart, godly, or prophetic as you are and try to extend grace to your lesser brother.

Simply put, David Platt made a fast decision when the president came by. To condemn him for that is simply not appropriate. He basically had two choices—either honor the request or not.

Platt could have chosen to decline the visit. This would have inevitably led to attacks from Trump supporters, a public outcry over a pastor refusing to pray for the president, and questioning of his personal position on the president.

Instead, he chose the second option and, in his eyes, sought to model what he saw in Scripture about praying for those in authority.

Yes, he could have prayed behind the scenes. Yes, he could have refused to have the president on stage. To some, he should have thought of all of those options in the few minutes he had while the president of the United States was asking for something else.

But let’s give David Platt the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned it. He did what he thought was right in that moment.

There are no parameters when it comes to who we will pray for, and we are specifically commanded to pray for our leaders. Jesus commanded us all to pray for even our enemies. We can debate if that prayer should have been on the stage, but perhaps we can agree that we pray when asked to pray.

Read the entire piece here.

Jerry Falwell Jr., President of a Christian University, Tells David Platt to “Grow a Pair”

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The president of the second largest Christian university in the world is at it again.

Falwell Jr. has blocked me on Twitter, so I cannot embed his recent tweet.  But this is what he wrote:

“Sorry to be crude but pastors like @plattdavid need to grow a pair.  Just saying.”

Falwell was responding to this tweet from Fox News radio host Todd Starnes:

Apparently Falwell was not happy with pastor David Platt’s letter to his congregation that explained how he handled the Trump’s visit to McLean Bible Church on Sunday.  Falwell’s tweet suggests that Platt’s decision to explain himself to his congregation made him appear weak and not manly enough.

Several comments:

  1. First, a word about his language.  Falwell begins by “apologizing” for his crudeness.  It is worth noting that he is the president of a university.  Most university presidents are able to communicate their ideas without being crude.  In other words, they have civil language at their disposal.  But Falwell knows that his base–conservative evangelical Christians–love this kind of language.  In some ways, Falwell’s use of language says less about him and more about the kind of evangelicals that gravitate toward him.  I would not be surprised if there was a small spike in donations to Liberty University today.
  2. This tweet reveals that Falwell views the world primarily through politics, not Christian reconciliation or unity.   Remember, Platt wrote this letter as a way of dealing with conflict in his congregation–McLean Bible Church.  It was a pastoral epistle.  Platt was trying to heal wounds and keep his church body together after a difficult day.  He knew there was some division in his church after Trump’ showed- up unannounced and he wanted to explain why he handled the president’s visit in the way he did.  For Falwell to criticize Platt for trying to maintain unity in his congregation suggests that the divisive rhetoric of Trumpian politics (or any politics for that matter) is more important than unity in the body of Christ.  But this is nothing new.
  3. It is also worth noting how Falwell responded to one of his critics on Twitter.  Winfield Bevins, a professor a Asbury Theological Seminary, called Falwell out in a tweet: “What an unbelievable statement from someone who calls themselves a minister of the gospel.  @LibertyU should call on you to repent.”  Falwell responded on twitter with this: “You’re putting your ignorance on display.  I have never been a minister.  UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 years.  Univ president for last 12-years–student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6 new construction in those 12 years.”  Trump couldn’t have said it any better.

Sad.

Last Night’s Court Evangelical Tweetstorm

For those who missed it (the link in the first tweet is now correct):

*The Atlantic* Asks: “Why is Trump suddenly talking about God?”

Here is a taste of writer David Graham’s piece:

Donald Trump is finding religion. Or at least, religion is finding its way into his remarks and his campaign’s rhetoric to an unprecedented extent.

On Thursday, the president celebrated the National Day of Prayer at the White House, and he said the Almighty had helped him persevere through the ordeal of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

“People say, ‘How do you get through that whole stuff? How do you get through those witch hunts and everything else?’” Trump said, turning to Vice President Pence. “And you know what we do, Mike? We just do it, right? And we think about God.”

In a variation on his claims about a “war on Christmas,” Trump also claimed that Americans are referring to the Divine more frequently.

“One of the things that Mike and I were discussing just a little while ago—people are so proud to be using that beautiful word, God, and they’re using the word God again, and they’re not hiding from it,” he said. “They’re not being told to take it down, and they’re not saying we can’t honor God. In God we trust. So important.”

Read the entire piece here.

A few quick thoughts on this piece and Thursday’s National Day of Prayer in general

  1. Trump is talking about God because he is required to do so at the National Prayer Breakfast.  This is a day to keep his conservative evangelical base in line.
  2. I disagree with Graham about the “unprecedented extent” in which Trump is now talking about God. He’s been doing this since the campaign.  There is little about what he said on Thursday that is new.  He has been throwing bones to the court evangelicals and their followers since 2015.  This, of course, is all chronicled in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
  3. Actually, if you compare what Trump said about God on Thursday with what Barack Obama said at national prayer breakfasts during his administration you will find that Obama’s remarks are deeper, more profound, and more seriously Christian than Trump’s. It is true that Obama did not always give the National Day of Prayer the kind of attention that Trump gives it, but Obama did offer statements about prayer and religious freedom that, at least to me, seem more fitting for a president of the United States.

Where are the Court Evangelicals Tonight? (DACA)

Donald Trump threw another bone to his base today by announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  Read about it here.

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman offers some nuance:

So far, the only court evangelical who has said the ending of the DACA program is unjust and unChristian is  Samuel Rodriguez.  I hope that Rodriguez used his unprecedented access and “God-given assignment” to rebuke the president for this decision.  I hope he did everything in his power to change Trump’s mind.

So far the rest of the court evangelicals have been silent.  Apparently 300 religious leaders urged Trump to keep the DACA program, but I have not been able to find a list of those leaders.  I will be surprised if there are any court evangelicals on the list apart from Rodriguez.

In the video below, court evangelical Robert Jeffress praises his own prayer in the White House last week as part of the most disturbing display of court flattery I have ever seen.  Where was the discussion of DACA at this meeting? Why didn’t the court evangelicals use their access to the Oval Office to defend these helpless children of immigrants who may soon be deported?  This, it seems to me, is a pro-life issue.  These kids may be ripped from their families and sent to a foreign country to live.  Yet the court evangelicals preferred a photo-op and a round of flattery.  I hope Jeffress will be praying for the 800,000 men and women who will be deported when and if the DACA program is ended.

 

If Thomas Jefferson Had His Way, There Would Be No Days of Prayer

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Here is Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808

I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

Notice Jefferson parts ways here with “his predecessors”–Adams and Washington.  Let the states have all the days of prayer that they want to have, but it is not appropriate for the federal government to call for such a day.

The Court Evangelicals on Display

Here are the court evangelicals on display:

I have no problem with Trump issuing a declaration of prayer.  Presidents have been doing this for a long time.  And the good people of Houston need as much prayer as possible.

But it was hard for me to watch Trump go around the room, ask individual faith leaders to say something flattering about his spirituality and his handling of Harvey, and then watch them oblige.  This is what court flattery looks like.

As historian Peter Burke puts it in his book The Fabrication of Louis XIV:  “…some courtiers and some writers sang the praises of Louis for the sake of their own careers, hitching their wagons to the sun.” (p.12).

When I see photo-ops like this it is hard for me to believe that the court evangelicals are speaking truth to power.

Today I told one of my classes that the culture wars is ultimately about how one understands American history.  Notice Gary Bauer in this video talking about “turning back” to God, the Christian roots of the country, and the “shining city on a hill.”

Robert Jeffress praises Trump as a healer of our nation and invokes the phrase “Make America Great Again” in his prayer.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is ultimately a historical statement.

Praying for the President is Fine

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I have to slightly part ways here with Reverend William Barber II.  The liberal anti-Trump minister recently described the court evangelicals praying for Donald Trump as “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.”

As Cleve Wootson Jr.’s piece on Barber in the Independent notes, “the person sitting in the Oval Office needs all the help he can get–earthly or divine.”  Since Barber was not in the room, he does not know the content of these prayers.  That is the real issue here.

Yet knowing what we know about the court evangelicals, I am not optimistic that the prayer they offered was apolitical.

Praying for the president is not the problem.  Stuff like this is the problem.

Prayer Books and the American Revolution

Book_of_common_prayer_1662Over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Sara Georgini of the Massachusetts Historical Society examines the impact of the American Revolution on Boston Anglicans through a close reading of their prayer books.  Georgini describes the “humble prayer book” as “a key intellectual artifact of the revolution.”  In the process she also provides us with a nice little slice of revolutionary-era lived religion.

Here is a taste of her post:

Church records tell us half the tale of how people “lived” religion while turning their hearts and minds to full-scale war. But modern revolutions run on reading material, and all books have biographies. To get at early America’s shifting worship politics, let’s “track changes” in the Books of Common Prayer amended by Anglican and Episcopal laity in the 1770s and 1780s (shown here). As they changed ways of daily worship, Americans imprinted a new language of selfhood and statehood. They road-tested national rhetoric, long before they had any clear, constitutional vision of what that nation might look like. (For more, check out John Fea’s #ChristianAmerica? post, too). Parishioners moved around sacraments to suit new needs. The laity’s handwritten edits in prayer book margins—scraping off “King of Kings” and pasting over rote prayers for the royal family—operated as cultural cues for political change. At critical moments in the war, as colonists endured sieges and made sacrifices, they edited their prayer books to endorse turns in popular thought at the local level. During a holiday week when we think about declarations of independence big and small—and in a year marking the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary—the humble prayer book still serves as a key intellectual artifact of revolution.

At the same time, these volumes were signs of consensus and communion in the Atlantic World. Books of Common Prayer first reached America’s shores alongside the earliest settlers. Often, the 1662 edition printed by London’s John Baskerville was formally issued to new American churches by the Royal Wardrobe. At Old North Church in Boston, vestrymen of 1733 opened a green-baize lined trunk mailed “from the Jewell Office.” Next to sterling silver communion plate, velvet pulpit cushions, and a Bible emblazoned with the royal arms, lay a second cache. Old North vestry received two prayer books, “bound in Turkey leather strung with blue garter ribbon and trimmed with gold fringe” and a dozen more for the community to share, all “bound in Calf Gilt & filleted & strung with blue Ribbon.” Prayer books were more than highly prized signals of royal favor. These worship aids consolidated five liturgical texts: daily offices, Litany, Holy Communion, pastoral offices, and the ordinal. As Rowan Williams suggests, the Book of Common Prayer outlines theological positions, but it is “less the expression of a fixed doctrinal consensus… more the creation of a doctrinal and devotional climate.” Across the Atlantic World, Anglo-American clergy used them to convey a community’s civilization, and learning. In fractured parishes, buying prayer books was often the sole purchase that everyone agreed on.

Read the entire post here.