Praying for the president

July 14th, 2017

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the subsequent failure of the levees caused devastating flooding in New Orleans, many poor and vulnerable people were evacuated to Houston. Along with other members of my campus ministry, I volunteered at the Astrodome, were evacuees were housed, mostly listening to stories and passing out extra blankets. I saw the rows and rows of cots and heard the frustrations of individuals and families. The pictures coming out of New Orleans and the surrounding areas were horrific, and newspapers were beginning to run articles on the bungled response by the federal government. President George W. Bush congratulated FEMA Director Michael D. Brown by saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

That Sunday, I attended church, and when we offered prayers for George, our President, I balked. I was spitting mad at the injustices and callousness I perceived and laid at the feet of President Bush as the leader of the federal government. Silently, in that moment, I negotiated with God. “Fine,” I conceded. “I’ll pray for the president, but I’m not going to like it.”

Week after week, in the context of Holy Communion, I prayed for the president. I don’t know if it changed him, but it changed me. I learned the lesson by living it that praying for someone is different from condoning their actions or agreeing with them. I prayed that God would guide our elected leaders, as government officials who hold authority, in the ways of justice and peace.

Fast forward to January 2017 and the inauguration of President Donald Trump on the heels of the most divisive election season most of us have lived through. At least a few churches specified that they would pray for the president, but not by name, out of courtesy to those (particularly victims of sexual abuse) who would be upset. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he specifies that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). As for my church and me, we prayed for our president by name, alongside the governor of our state.

This week, a picture surfaced on social media of President Donald Trump kneeling in the center of a circle of evangelical Christian leaders laying hands on him in prayer. Aside from the performative aspect of a participant taking a picture in the middle of praying, the picture hit me the wrong way, especially given the current allegations surrounding Russian interference in our election and the extremely unpopular and potentially damaging health care bill in the Senate. It is unclear to me whether this faith advisory council is praying for God to guide the president in wisdom and peace or, more cynically, to guide him to their desired political outcomes.

In our confession that Christ is King, that Jesus is Lord, we pledge our ultimate loyalty to God, while recognizing that in our current reality, some sort of government is necessary. Donald Trump is neither a Savior nor an Anti-Christ, though different sides have imbued his persona with all kinds of theological significance. Praying for our political leaders on earth does not mean that we approve of or condone their actions or positions but is merely a part of our vocations as Christians.

Ultimately, as I recognized through my experience in college, prayer is about God changing my heart, about showing me the places where I fail day after day to live the faith I proclaim with my tongue, and making me aware of God’s unlimited, boundless grace for everyone from the President to the least powerful.

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