(RNS) — Praying for the president has gotten an unusual amount of press lately. Not long ago, Franklin Graham called for churches to set aside June 2 as a day to pray for President Trump. Then, on June 2, Trump showed up unannounced at McLean Bible Church in northern Virginia asking for public prayer from its pastor, David Platt.
Platt has since drawn widespread praise, criticism and sympathy — the latter mostly from other pastors who are relieved to have never been in Platt’s situation.
What has intrigued me about this discussion is how much evangelical Christians regard prayer as a means of self-expression. Graham’s call to prayer was an attempt to defend and promote the president. Platt’s words, as meticulously nonpartisan as the photo-op they yielded was not, again revealed how prayer in evangelical communities functions as self-revelation, even as a type of public branding.
Prayer, in this view, is not primarily an ongoing, received practice wherein God shapes us but is focused instead on expressing our own thoughts, needs and feelings to God and, in the case of public prayer, to the watching world. It is understood less as an ancient and mysterious spiritual practice than as a chance to endorse (or condemn) what we see in the world around us.
I have experienced this kind of prayer firsthand. I have seen congregational prayer become a chance to hold forth about the glory of the Marine Corps, as all the pacifists in the room shifted uncomfortably. I’ve seen prayer used as a tool to manipulate others toward a pastor’s chosen end. I’ve even seen prayer used as a chance to convince a girl that God really did tell a boy in the room that she should marry him. (As of this writing, the girl has apparently not received the message.)
And of course I’ve seen prayer used as a political weapon.
Historically, prayer has been chiefly understood not as a way to express ourselves, but as a way that we come before God to be transformed by his words and work. The original prayer book of the Christian church was the Psalms, and when the earliest Christians — in particular the church fathers and mothers — commended the practice of prayer, they were not commending self-expression before God; they specifically meant learning to pray the poetry of the Psalms.
Many who belong to churches in liturgical traditions — whose services are conducted according to an order of prayer that varies only minimally from week to week — pray together each Sunday during the prayers of the people. Amid enduring prayers for the church, the suffering, the poor, the Earth and the dead, we Anglicans pray as a community “for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world, that there may be justice and peace on the earth.”
We pray this each week, regardless of who is in office, and this liturgical practice has allowed me, slowly, to warm up to the idea of praying for those in power. For most of my life, I didn’t pray for political leaders. Though Scripture commended the practice, I was cynical enough about politics that I didn’t know how to pray without a big dose of sarcasm or ire. I am also hopelessly politically homeless, so I often don’t have words to convey my political frustration, lament, confusion and complexity.
I am grateful, then, for the received prayers we say in church each week and how they have shaped me and my church community.
To be clear, we Anglicans and other liturgical churches are not opposed to “free,” expressive or spontaneous prayer. I use free-form prayer as much as I do scripted prayers, and I teach my kids to pray conversationally with God.
But learning to pray the church’s inherited prayers has fundamentally changed how I view prayer itself. My practice of prayer is no longer aimed at expressing my sincere faith or opinions or feelings but is a formative encounter with God through practice, regardless of how I feel, at the moment, about God or the circumstances of my life.
My favorite form of congregational prayer for political leaders, for instance, is when we pray for “Donald, the president, Tom, our governor, and Bill, our mayor.” (We prayed these same prayers for Barack, George and so on.)
I was caught off guard the first time I heard this prayer, and to this day it makes me grin (and some teenagers in our church giggle). I love it because it is completely nonpartisan. In our state and city, we currently pray for two Democrats and one Republican. But more so, I love this prayer because it uses politicians’ first names (what some would call their “Christian” name because it’s the name typically used in baptism). It is so casual — you know, our neighbors Donald, Tom and Bill. We may as well be talking about our co-worker or kid’s karate teacher.
Praying this prayer, with first names, reminds each and all of us that these men and women in office are just that: complex and ordinary men and women.
We pray as a church — some of us praying for the person we voted for, some of us praying for our political enemies — but we remember together that these are human beings. They, like us, have feet of clay. They, like us, are capable of tremendous evil and yet are made in the image of God and therefore possess inherent dignity.
For those tempted to deify the president, using a first name appropriately diminishes him. He is just Donald. For those tempted to see him as evil incarnate, using his first name calls us to remember he is just a man, someone’s son.
This doesn’t lessen the need to hold a president — or anyone in authority — accountable, to insist on integrity, justice and care for the weak. It does allow us, as a church, to pray together and for our politics to be shaped by prayer, more than the other way around.
My church is profoundly diverse politically; our parishioners run the gamut of the political spectrum. As a pastor, this makes me really proud of the people in our pews. They are willing to hang together in a deeply polarized culture. They are willing to seek God and love those with whom they disagree.
This also means that, especially around elections, things can get tense. The willingness to remain in the tension of loving yet deep disagreement with our fellow congregants is part of the prophetic call and witness of the church in this moment of history.
When my church prays together for those in power, we are intentionally praying with those who may fall on the other side of the political aisle. That itself is a political act — one that proclaims through practice that American politics is not our ultimate hope, that our loyalty to one another as a church supersedes any political or even national tie, and that our first longing as a people is to seek the kingdom of God. Our prayer is not an expression of our own political views but is a way of being shaped, as a community, by the kingship of Jesus.
Regardless of how we feel, we will continue to pray the prayers that have been handed to us by the ancient and global church. We pray them now, each week, for Donald. I don’t know who we will pray them for in three years or 30 years, but we will continue to pray for him or her, often by name, week in and week out.
(Tish Harrison Warren is an Anglican priest, writer-in-residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh and author of “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)