On Praying for Donald Trump

As I write this, Vice President Mike Pence is addressing the the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some Southern Baptists aren’t too happy about that. As John Fea reported, a Virginia pastor named Garrett Kell found the invitation to Pence so tone-deaf and divisive that he recommended replacing that speech with a time of prayer. Another pastor from Virginia, Grant Ethridge (who chairs the SBC’s committee on the order of business), responded that it was appropriate for a politician to address the assembly. He pointed out, correctly, that the SBC has often invited government officials to speak in this way. Then he quoted from several New Testament passages making clear, he thought, “our response to all governments, from Rome to the U.S., from Caesar to the President and I believe we respect the position regardless of whether or not you supported or voted for the person.”

I’m not a Southern Baptist and won’t get into the wisdom of giving this stage to the chief deputy of Donald Trump. Instead, I’ll just recommend that you read Baptist historian Tommy Kidd’s post on the history of politicians addressing the SBC. He points out that the rationale given by people like Ethridge seem to be rather inconsistently applied — almost always, at least since the “conservative resurgence,” to the benefit of Republican officeholders. And I don’t want to revisit the question of what it means to fear God and honor the emperor.

No, I’m more interested in the first proof-text cited by Ethridge in defending the invitation to Pence. He eventually got to verses about respect for secular authority (Rom 13:1, Tit 3:1, 1 Pet 2:17), but he started by quoting from the first three verses of 1 Timothy 2:

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority… This is good, and it pleases God our Savior… (CSB)

Now, I don’t think Kell would disagree. One of the first things he said was that “we should pray for [Pence] in his all-important service of our country.” In fact, it seems to me that 1 Tim 2:1-3 argues far more strongly for Kell’s proposed time of prayer than for inviting a political leader to address a Christian meeting.

But it resonated with me because I’ve been thinking for a while about the meaning of praying “for those who are in authority.” Specifically, why and how we should pray for political leaders who horrify us.

Donald Trump praying with others
Donald Trump and Mike Pence praying with then-Judge Neil Gorsuch in January 2017 – White House

Not only is such prayer is encouraged in Scripture, it’s been an ancient practice of Christians who lived under far worse rulers than Donald Trump. For example, around the year AD 200, the North African writer Tertullian defended Christians against Roman persecution. “[I]n all our prayers,” he explained, “[we] are ever mindful of all our emperors and kings wheresoever we live, beseeching God for every one of them without distinction, that He would bless them with length of days and a quiet reign, a well-established family, a stout army, a faithful senate, an honest people, and a peaceful world, and whatever else either prince or people can wish for.” And lest his Roman readers think such prayers “the spices of flattery, and a trick only to elude the severity of the laws,” Tertullian insisted that praying for even cruel rulers was actually integral to Christianity:

Thou therefore that thinkest that the Christian religion expresses no concern for the life of Caesar, look into the word of God, the word we go by, and which we do not suppress in private, and which many accidents have thrown into the hands of strangers, and there you may see with what superabundant charity we are commanded to love our enemies, to bless them that curse us, to do good to them that hate us, and to pray for them which despitefully use us, and persecute us [Matt 5:44]. And who such cruel persecutors of Christians as the emperors for whom they are persecuted ? And yet these are the persons we are commanded by the word of God expressly, and by name, to pray for…

I don’t feel especially persecuted by Trump, but he opposes almost all of my most deeply held values. So praying for him continues to feel as difficult as it is imperative.

So why is it to important that we pray for a leader like Donald Trump?

Not, as some Trump supporters apparently pray, so that God will protect him from criticism and political opposition. No, let’s go back to 1 Timothy 2, this time noting some words that Rev. Ethridge left out of his statement to the SBC messengers:

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

We make such prayers, then, not out of undue deference to our rulers — or unquestioning support of them, but in the knowledge that they are flawed individuals who need God’s help: first, to help the governed to live in peace, godliness, and dignity; and second, to themselves know truth and salvation.

In our Christianity and Western Culture class this year, I preceded a lecture on the American Revolution by praying this collect from the first American version of the Book of Common Prayer.

Lord, our heavenly Father, the high and mighty Ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; Most heartily we beseech thee, with thy favour to behold and bless thy servant The President of the United States, and all others in authority; and so replenish them with the grace of thy holy Spirit, that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way. Endue them plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant them in health and prosperity long to live; and finally, after this life, to attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the 18th century or the 21st, this seems appropriate. Whomever the president, we should pray that she or he be replenished by God’s Holy Spirit for the seemingly impossible work of government — all the more so when their words and deeds seem so contrary to God’s intentions for peace and justice, “that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way.”

It reminded me of a brief news story from earlier this year, after Trump’s infamous comments about Haitians, Africans, and other immigrants from “s***hole countries.” The L.A. Times reported that a local AME pastor, J. Edgar Boyd, “was met with murmurs of disapproval when he urged his mostly African American congregation to pray for the president of the United States.

“When Boyd asked God to hold Trump accountable for ‘his words, his deeds, and his actions,’ the disapproval turned to applause.”

I don’t know that I would have applauded if I were sitting in one of those pews, but Rev. Boyd’s petition is an entirely appropriate way of fulfilling 1 Tim 2. If we make any prayer for a leader, it should be that God will hold them accountable.

So long as we’re willing to make the same prayer for ourselves, that is.

One of the most thought-provoking pieces about Trump that I’ve read recently came from Elizabeth Palmer, books editor of The Christian Century. She tried to take seriously conservative commentator Eric Metaxas’ argument that it’s not for us to judge what kind of a Christian Donald Trump is:

Palmer, Faith in a Hidden God
Palmer is also the author of this 2017 book on Martin Luther’s notion of a “hidden God”

I’ve known plenty of parishioners, church council members, seminary and divinity school professors, and pastors who have deep faith in God through Christ—and who commit adultery and lie about it, abuse their children or spouse, buy the newest luxury car while ignoring the homeless person across the street, or accede to racism and misogyny in thousands of little ways, seen and unseen. I’ve never doubted that God still loves them.

In the end, Palmer found that prayer, for Trump and for herself, was an important response to our current times. I don’t think I can improve on how she puts it:

I believe in a God who can and does love Trump as much as I love my own children. This kind of love isn’t simple: it weeps when the beloved strays, it gets angry when the beloved hurts others, and it works hard to draw the beloved toward ethical behavior. But even as it grieves the beloved’s faults, it rejoices in the beloved’s existence. I will never be able to love Trump in that way, so I’m grateful that God does. The least I can do in response is to pray.

But it’s hard to pray for someone you don’t love, and I still haven’t figured out how to pray for Trump. I know that praying for him doesn’t mean that I have to give up my political opinions, or to stop opposing hateful speech and unjust actions. It may even mean holding him to public accountability, as Christians do for each other. But it also means acknowledging that he and I have something in common: we both stand in need of God’s grace.

When I shared my desire to pray for Trump with another Lutheran pastor, he suggested that I pray for the president to experience a Flannery O’Connor-like revelation. One that stoops into the depths of your wickedness, humbling and hurting you as it turns you toward the slow, raggedy path of redemption.

That’s something I can pray for. Not only for Trump, but for myself.