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.

The evangelical pastor David Platt and President Donald Trump shared a prayer that drew scrutiny. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

It is not weird for a Southern Baptist pastor to pray for the president of the United States. Yes, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and have remained firmly supportive  of the president during his first two years in office. Yes, he has surrounded himself with a coterie of evangelical advisers who have cemented the association between conservative Christianity and Trumpism. But even among the evangelical pastors who spoke out against Trump in the run-up to Election Day 2016—and they did exist—praying for the president is a given. As Russell Moore, a major Southern Baptist leader and a vocal Trump critic, wrote shortly before Trump’s inauguration, it is “our obligation as Christians to pray for all those who are in civil authority.”

So when Trump visited McLean Bible Church, a D.C.-area mega-church, over the weekend to show his support to the victims of the Virginia Beach mass shooting, which took place the night before roughly four hours away, it was to be expected that the pastor there, David Platt, would pray for the president. Trump showed up in the middle of the afternoon, after a round of golf, and made no remarks. The two men stood onstage together, eyes shut, Platt holding his Bible. “We stand right now on behalf of our president, and we pray for your grace and your mercy and your wisdom upon him,” Platt said. “We pray that he would look to you. That he would trust in you, that he would lean on you. That he would govern and make decisions in ways that are good for justice, and good for righteousness, and good for equity, every good path.”

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. “Would Platt have offered a similar photo op to an abusive husband who’s publicly gaslighting his spouse & kids?”

This line of criticism echoes a larger debate among Christian leaders over the past few years: whether they should lend their moral credibility to a president who has made inflammatory statements and promoted controversial policies. Some, such as Trump’s circle of evangelical advisers, believe they are most effective if they work in consultation with the president. Other progressive pastors, such as Barber, believe it is incumbent upon Christian leaders to call out the president’s policy and conduct.

As it happens, Platt, the pastor at McLean Bible Church, doesn’t fit neatly into either of these camps. He 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 with certain 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.

When Trump has visited other Southern Baptist churches, the outcomes have often been wildly different. Take Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, who is one of the president’s most vocal evangelical boosters. The summer after Trump became president, his church debuted the “Make America Great Again Theme,” performed before a giant American flag. In comparison, Platt’s prayers struck a very different note.

Evangelicals aren’t the only religious people in America who believe in praying for the president and other government leaders, no matter their policies. Jews do it. Catholics do it. Even some progressives, who might find the president personally objectionable, take on this obligation. Praying for Trump doesn’t mean embracing his political worldview; in fact, several prominent evangelicals have spoken out against Trump’s leadership, and the divisions he has sown even among conservative Christians.

But for evangelicals like Platt, and people who believe that prayer means something, those conflicts might seem beside the point. Their words might not be able to heal the political divisions that have taken hold of America, which make even prayer seem suspect and politicized. But at least they can call for help from above.