Opinion

Opinion: For Whom and What Do Faith Leaders Pray?

White evangelicals still strongly in president’s corner

President Donald Trump attended a worship service at the International Church of Las Vegas in October as a candidate. He reached out to evangelical Christians for support during the 2016 campaign. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Were their prayers answered?

White — most of them, anyway — evangelicals, recently photographed laying hands on President Donald Trump perhaps were praying that the proposed Senate health care bill, the one estimates predicted would result in millions losing care or Medicaid coverage, would fail.

And it did.

Or maybe not. Who knows what a person prays for in his or her heart?

This week, a group of African-American faith leaders brought a different message to Washington, illustrating the stark divide in a country with a separation between church and state that is regularly and sometimes warily breached by politicians and preachers alike.

A majority of Americans prefer leaders who profess some belief. Reflecting that, the percentage of believers and Christians has remained surprisingly stable in Congress even as the diversity of faiths represented has broadened. Meanwhile, the citizenry grows increasingly uncertain of the power of a higher power.

In truth, many of those particular faith leaders in the Oval Office have aligned themselves with the Trump agenda, whatever it is that day, and they’re sticking with it.

Vice President Mike Pence and a host of other elected officials wear their faith openly and proudly, and use it, they say, as a guiding principle for policy decisions. Of course, what God instructs can be interpreted in widely different ways.

White evangelicals who attend church regularly are strongly in the president’s corner — as are, to a lesser extent, white Catholics, which causes some awkward avoidance of political talk in my diverse parish on any given Sunday.

In giving a report on exactly what happened in the White House, Richard Land, head of the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, N.C., in the Charlotte Observer, did not have much to say on health care. He did, however, echo the president’s talking points, particularly on the investigation into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia.

Land called it an “inside-the-Beltway, navel-gazing, tail-chasing exercise that most Americans don’t care about.” He also threw in the obligatory attack on the media.

And yes, he said, the evangelical leaders, who were treated to an issues briefing from Jared Kushner, in their presidential meeting “prayed that God would give him wisdom ... and that God would protect him.” But that seemed beside the political point.

Evangelical support

Many white evangelical leaders supported Trump during the campaign, citing his anti-abortion views, his position on giving churches and individuals more freedom of action and expression in the public square and his power to appoint conservative judges sympathetic to that agenda.

That support paid off with the appointment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, with little attention to how the previous president’s pick Merrick Garland was shunted aside to leave the vacancy open.

It’s not that Trump’s, shall we say, flamboyant lifestyle and profane pronouncements did not give religious leaders pause. But, in a neat trick used by inauguration speaker Franklin Graham, those very transgressions were twisted around as proof that Trump was chosen.

“He did everything wrong, politically,” Graham said in The Atlantic. “He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended black people. He offended the Hispanic people. … And he became president of the United States. Only God could do that.”

Picking and choosing

Now, forgiveness and understanding are certainly positive values. But they can be used strategically and selectively.

Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, found that out when his criticisms of Trump’s behavior, the role of religion in politics, and outreach to all races and religions earned rebuke and the cold shoulder from fellow Christians, as well as a nasty tweet by the president himself.

Other rebels have surfaced since. Lawrence Ware publicly renounced his ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention in The New York Times, in part because of its slow progress moving past its founding history of racism and exclusion.

“I want to be a member of a body of believers that is structured around my Christian beliefs of equity, not one that sees those issues as peripheral,” he wrote.

The National African American Clergy Network’s message, guided by faith, harkened back to the history of faith as social justice guide. It called on black clergy from around the country “to stand up for justice and human dignity for all Americans,” it said in a statement, “and to protest President Trump’s devastating budget and its adverse effects on the poor of this country.”

The clergy and lay leaders scheduled meetings with key members of Congress and spoke against health care and budget proposals, using the Lord’s word to support their views. They worshipped at Ebenezer United Methodist Church, a historic church that has seen W.E.B Du Bois and Frederick Douglass enter its doors.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber, of the Moral Mondays movement and founder of Repairers of the Breach, set his message in biblical lessons: “‘Woe unto those who legislate evil, and rob the poor of their rights, and make women and children their prey.’ These people here make a big deal out of putting their hands on the Bible to be sworn into office; we have come to tell them what is inside of it.”

Praying for a man to use power wisely is not the same as unlimited faith in that man’s power to act wisely. Goodness and decency is not owned by a person, a religion or any faith at all, for that matter. Though it is said God works in mysterious ways, the simplicity of that message would seem no mystery at all.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

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