The presidential inauguration serves as a moment the nation recognizes and celebrates the continued peaceful transition of power, if not the individual to whom the power is being transferred.
The ascension of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land has provoked, interestingly enough, significant discussion of the role and significance of prayer.
Prayer in America
For most Americans, prayer is a daily reality. Pew Research found 58% of US adults say they pray every day and another 22% pray weekly or monthly.
Another study published in the Journal of Religion and Health found more than 87% of American adults said they have prayed for healing of others.
Jeff Levin, a Baylor University epidemiologist and author of the study, said: “Outside of belief in God, there may be no more ubiquitous religious expression in the U.S. than use of healing prayer.”
In other words, prayer is part of the fabric of our country and has been since our founding.
It should not be surprising then that politicians pray and ceremonies involve praying for politicians. But apparently that strikes some as odd.
Is prayer unusual?
In profiling President-elect Trump’s pick for agriculture secretary, the manager of the Washington Post politics Twitter account felt prayer was a noteworthy occurrence.
Trump picks former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, who once led a prayer for rain, for agriculture secretary https://t.co/QVipQtfgnt
— Post Politics (@postpolitics) January 19, 2017
The story itself notes how Perdue “drew national headlines” for a prayer vigil held during a crippling drought in 2007.
Other outlets and journalists picked up on that line and the tweet and proceeded to mock the former governor’s actions.
The fact that Perdue’s prayer provoked national media coverage says more about those media outlets than Perdue.
If the statistics are true, this is nothing out of the ordinary for 8 in 10 Americans. Most pray for healing or guidance or rain.
(And by the way, it rained one day after Perdue’s prayer for rain.)
But one can forgive a social media person at The Washington Post for failing to understand the significance of prayer for millions of Americans. I’m not sure the same can be said for an episcopal priest and the former dean of the Washington National Cathedral.
Is prayer merely symbolic?
Since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inauguration in 1933, most presidential inaugural prayer services have taken place at the cathedral.
It will happen again this year. Nothing is out of the ordinary—except the response.
Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of the cathedral from 2012-2015, has taken an usual step of criticizing his successor to that role over his continuing the long-standing tradition.
From The Washington Post:
“I think the faith community should be a center of resistance against Donald Trump’s vision in America,” Hall said, adding that he believes any participation in the inauguration legitimizes Trump.
In an op-ed at RNS, Hall wrote:
In his words and actions, Trump has shown himself to be outside the bounds of all mainstream norms of Christian faith and practice. His often-expressed xenophobia and misogyny, not to mention his mocking of the disabled and admission of abusive behavior, place him well outside the values of compassion and respect for human dignity that mark historic Christianity at its best. It is simply inappropriate to use a precious institution such as Washington National Cathedral to suggest that the church bestows its blessing on a leader so obviously beyond the pale of Christian thought.
Hall, like every other American, is entitled to his opinion of our president-elect. And like every other American believer, he is responsible for living faithfully as a Christian in the current culture.
Yet, it seems odd that Hall is worried about how well Trump fits within “historic Christianity” when he opened the national cathedral to same-sex weddings and Muslim prayer services.
Regardless of your opinions of either of those activities, their place in the modern Christian church, neither are consistent with historic Christianity.
Neither, to be quite honest, is an interfaith prayer service, but that is what the cathedral has done for the past century and is part of the civil religion of our nation.
Hall says he is worried about the legitimacy such a public faith event would led to Trump. He writes, “We cannot use the words, symbols and images of our faith to provide a religious gloss to an autocrat.”
Leaving the autocrat-bit aside, the national cathedral has used the words, symbols and images of the Christian faith to provide a religious gloss to numerous elected leaders.
And a traditional interfaith prayer service does not make Donald Trump president. The votes of the American people did that, regardless of anyone’s opinion of him or even of the electoral system.
To be fair, Hall says he prays daily for both the president-elect and vice president-elect. I have no reason to doubt his testimony or the sincerity of his private prayers.
But the call by many progressive people of faith for the national cathedral to refuse to hold the prayer service strikes me as unusual as The Washington Post story found praying for rain.
Does prayer matter?
If you are any type of Christian, why would you not want as many people, in as many venues as possible, in as public manner as possible, praying for the president?
This would seem to be especially true for Christians who have voiced concern for the statements, positions and actions of our president-elect.
But I think this reveals something about the way many Christians view prayer. We view it as a ceremonial aspect of life, not an essential one.
Hall writes, “I simply do not believe that the most visible symbol of compassionate faith in America should lend itself to endorsing or espousing their shrunken, fearful vision of our national life.”
The way he speaks of a prayer service at the national cathedral is focused on the symbolism, not the content of the event. But if prayer really connects us to God, the words spoken at the cathedral will be much more important than any symbolism.
If prayer matters, then there is nothing at all unusual about praying for rain. In fact, we should be doing that anytime a drought happens.
If a God in heaven hears our prayers, it would be dangerous to not pray for any elected leader—specifically one that concerns us—as much as possible.
Many may be confounded by the prayers of a politician or for a politician, but there is nothing else as important. Unseen does not mean unimportant.
So whether you can see the spiritual world your prayers enter or even if you can’t see the results, pray.
Pray for our president (our previous ones, our current one, and our future ones). Pray privately. Pray publically. Pray. It matters.
It may be unusual to some, but it is much more than symbolic. It is powerful and it matters.