Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Is it controversial to pray for the president of the United States?

Not really. Anyone who knows anything about religious life in America knows that, week after week, people in a wide variety of religious congregations pray for the president (and the nation’s leaders in general) in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes these prayers are short, inserted in a longer litany of concerns (as in the Orthodox Christian parish I attend) and sometimes they are longer and more specific.

Here is a special-use prayer drawn from the world of liturgical mainline Protestantism (The Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church):

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Next question: Is it controversial to pray for President Donald Trump?

Apparently so. It appears that this answer is linked to another question that, for millions of Americans (including many journalists) remains controversial: Should Trump be recognized, in just about any way, as the president of the United States?

The world of Twitter journalism just had a fascinating firestorm about these questions — racing from a news report at The Hill all the way to a calm essay by Emma Green at The Atlantic, with a variety of comments by chattering-class voices in between. Let’s start with the politically charged basics, at The Hill: “Pastor defends prayer for Trump, says aim was not to endorse policies.” This event took place at one of the most high-profile evangelical megachurches near the D.C. Beltway.

Pastor David Platt defended his prayer for President Trump on Monday, saying his aim was not to endorse the president's policies.

"I know that some within our church, for a variety of valid reasons, are hurt that I made this decision," Platt said in a statement about delivering the prayer at the McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia, with Trump present on Sunday.

"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." "My aim was in no way to endorse the president, his policies, or his party, but to obey God’s command to pray for our president and other leaders to govern in the way this passage portrays," Platt added.

Here’s the remarkable part, methinks:

The pastor went on to offer a prayer for the president and other political leaders. Trump left without making any remarks on-stage.

If you want to read the text of this prayer, click here. It’s pretty modest stuff, based on what I have seen and read in the past.

So what is missing in this hard-news report?

For starters, if would have been good to have known if this congregation has always prayed for the occupant of the White House — year after year, administration after administration. I would predict that the answer is “yes.”

It would have been good — and quite easy — to have found a few texts that demonstrate that praying for presidents is very, very normal.

For example, it would have been easy to have found texts of prayers for President Barack Obama, in a variety of different settings. Check out the text of this prayer for Obama by a major Southern Baptist conservative, the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. Here’s a snippet of that long prayer that marked Obama’s inauguration:

Lord, we pray with thanksgiving for the joy and celebration reflected on millions of faces who never expected to look to the President of the United States and see a person who looks like themselves. Father, thank you for preserving this nation to the moment when an African-American citizen will take the oath of office and become our President. Thank you for the hope this has given to so many, the pride emerging in hearts that had known no such hope, and the pride that comes to a people who have experienced such pain at the hands of fellow citizens, simply because of the color of their skin. Father, we rejoice in every elderly face that reflects such long-sought satisfaction and in every young face that expresses such unrestrained joy. May this become an open door for a vision of race and human dignity that reflects your glory in our differences, and not our corruption of your gift.

By the end of this heated day, Green weighed in at The Atlantic with a must-read essay under this double-decker headline.

On Praying for the President

Donald Trump’s controversial stop at a Virginia mega-church after a mass shooting showed how even normal Christian behavior has been scrutinized during this administration.

Here’s the summary statement that many newsrooms managers and pundits need to read:

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

A number of media outlets marked this moment as newsworthy, publishing stories associating Platt’s prayer with the evangelist Franklin Graham’s call for a special day of prayer for the president. And some liberal Christian leaders called out Platt for what they saw as an implicit endorsement of the president: “The question isn’t whether to pray for those in authority but how to pray for someone who’s abusing authority,” tweeted Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who works with the influential progressive pastor William Barber.

It would appear that many journalists assumed that the leader of McLean Bible Church fit into hurrah-for-Trump choir.

As Green noted, this assumption about Platt is simplistic and, to be blunt, wrong. This pastor, she noted:

… is not one of Trump’s evangelical advisers; unlike leaders in those circles, he is not known for tweeting or writing about politics. He is part of a young vanguard of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention who have argued for a countercultural version of Christianity, rejecting the nationalism and consumerism that have become so tightly intertwined withcertain evangelical subcultures. He’s also recently been on the losing side of Southern Baptist intramural politics: When Platt was the leader of a Southern Baptist office called the International Mission Board, it signed on to an amicus brief supporting a New Jersey Muslim group’s right to build a mosque; some pastors pushed back, claiming that Islam is a “false religion” that Southern Baptists shouldn’t be supporting. Platt eventually apologized.

In keeping with his generally nonpolitical profile, Platt kept his prayers for Trump fairly neutral. He did not mention specific Trump policies or the Republican Party. He combined his prayers for the president with prayers for leaders in all parts of government, including Congress, the courts, and at the state level. He mentioned the word wisdom eight times. His praise was for Jesus, not for Trump.

Keep reading. Green noted — accurately — that a few Southern Baptists have veered into straight-out endorsements of Trump, more than once.

Who can forget that singalong at First Baptist, Dallas?

Now, compare that scene with the Platt prayer. Please.

What we have here, of course, is another dose of Twitter anger about yet another alleged news event that produced news coverage built on a simplistic view of American evangelicals and their complex views on politics and, yes, this president.

One more time, here is my GetReligion typology defining six different evangelical approaches to the Trump era. I openly acknowledge that it may not be nuanced enough to capture some of the in-between stances taken by some evangelicals.

(1) Many evangelicals supported Trump from the get-go. For them, Trump is great and everything is going GREAT.

(2) Other evangelicals may have supported Trump early on, but they have always seen him as a flawed leader — but the best available. They see him as complicated and evolving and are willing to keep their criticisms PRIVATE.

(3) There are evangelicals who moved into Trump's tent when it became obvious he would win the GOP nomination. They think he is flawed, but they trust him to – at least – protect their interests, primarily on First Amendment issues.

(4) Then there are the lesser-of-two-evils Trump evangelicals who went his way in the general election, because they could not back Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. They believe Trump's team has done some good, mixed with quite a bit of bad, especially on race and immigration. They think religious conservatives must be willing to criticize Trump — IN PUBLIC.

(5) There are evangelicals who never backed Trump and they never will. Many voted for third-party candidates. They welcome seeing what will happen when Trump team people are put under oath and asked hard questions. … However, they are willing to admit that Trump has done some good, even if in their heart of hearts they'd rather be working with President Mike Pence.

(6) Folks on the evangelical left simply say, "No Trump, ever." Anything he touches is bad and must be rejected. Most voted for Clinton and may have yearned for Bernie Sanders.

So where would Platt fit into that grid?

I do not know. That would be a valid news story. However, after this Twitter explosion, I’m not sure that he would be willing to discuss the matter further.

Consider this, for example:

Wait a minute. Is “apologized” the right word in this case?

How about saying that Platt “explained” why he made this quick decision.

Stay tuned.

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