20 January 2017
Trump: the politics of praying for presidents
Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, reflects on how Christians can respond as Donald Trump becomes president of the United States.
Six faith leaders are taking part in the inauguration ceremony for Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and I've found myself in a momentary flight of fancy thinking how I might have responded if I had been asked to take part. He has after all widened the pool of spiritual contributors further than any of his predecessors.
Some of those chosen to take part have been fervent supporters of Trump, such as Paula White, while others are more surprising, including a couple of leaders who have been vocal in their opposition. The Rev Samuel Rodriguez has spoken out against Trump's rhetoric around immigration, but has said he plans on working with the president - especially on the status of the children of undocumented immigrants. There have been plenty of things throughout the campaign and since his election that I would want to speak out against, especially the way he has spoken about women and ethnic minorities.
The Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, who also criticised Trump during the campaign, will offer a reading for the ceremony, and said in a statement: "I am honoured to have been asked to offer a reading from scripture at the upcoming presidential inauguration, and look forward to asking Almighty God to inspire and guide our new president and to continue to bless our great nation."
Back to reality and I ask myself a more realistic question: how should I respond in this new era of politics? Because it is different to how things have been before. This isn't politics as we know it. Do the usual pat answers of praying for our leaders and encouraging constructive political engagement hold water when the president trumpets his ethical business arrangements by filling a table with blank manila folders, filled with – as far as anyone can tell – wads of blank paper?
I think they have to. And I start by respecting three things, which I think regardless of our politics are important for us to remember. I respect the political and democratic process that saw Donald Trump become president. Democracy is not always easy, but one of the surest signs of a healthy democratic system is losers respecting the result, so whether we voted for Trump, or didn't, or didn't vote at all, or like me live thousands of miles away and aren't citizens with a vote, we should respect the process and the result.
Second, and perhaps most fundamentally, I have respect for the personhood of the person who is becoming president. Christians talk a great deal about respect for human dignity – usually when campaigning to protect life – but it also applies when we talk about people, when we praise them or criticise them. Donald Trump is a person made in the image of God, and as such when I speak about things he says or does – as it is unlikely I'm going to talk to him face-to-face – I want to speak with dignity.
The third thing I feel prompted to hold onto at this moment in our political climate is a respect for the office of the president of the United States. This certainly doesn't insulate President Trump from criticism or opposition, the Church down the centuries has played a powerful role in speaking truth to power, from John the Baptist standing up to Herod, to Christians persecuted for their faith across the world today who challenge ruling authorities with their words and actions.
I will pray for Donald Trump because he will be directly exercising authority over the US, and indirectly over many people all across the world. I can't let go of the command in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for our leaders and those in authority – that command isn't contingent on whether I agree with them, voted for them, or support their policies. And the people Paul was writing to in the early Church lived under, and were commanded to pray for, leaders in authority who abused their power way beyond anything we see in 21st Century western democracies. Our prayers are a powerful weapon against the political distrust and disenchantment that's becoming epidemic.
Prayer is not our only response, but I think it should be our first. Our second step is to take action. If we want leaders with better character, leaders that take responsibility, if we want public leaders that work for the good of all in society, we have to be willing to get involved. Trust in politics isn't likely to be rebuilt by demanding those who are there already tell the truth more – although that would be a good thing. Trust is restored when people of integrity step forward and speak truth in public life.
The strength of our frustration with politics should magnify our intention to get involved. It should urge us to look for leaders that serve the people rather than themselves, and with a vision for the future that offers a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like on earth. It's a lot to ask, but it's what I'm after. After all, miracles do happen.
Find out more about the public leadership work of the Evangelical Alliance: www.thepublicleader.com