The grandeur and genius of American democracy is on full display every four years when the new president is sworn in, and I make it a point never to miss the pageantry that goes along with it. It thrills me every time and makes me proud to be an American. This year, though, there was an additional piece that caught me by surprise, something so out of the ordinary that I’m still trying to sort through it. Donald Trump’s inauguration, while keeping with the many other traditions that go along with the occasion, included a focus on prayer like none before it. I’m not the only one who noticed. Numerous observers pointed out that no fewer than six separate prayers marked the event–three invocations at the beginning and three benedictions at the end.
But it wasn’t just the number of prayers that caught everyone’s attention. A more noticeable feature was how most of them reflected an evangelical perspective. Usually an incoming president is careful to have non-sectarian prayers at his inauguration in order to appeal to as broad a cross section as possible. Not President Trump. He wanted ministers from that segment of the church that takes the Bible literally and expects real things to happen through prayer.
Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened the ceremony with an invocation not taken from the Bible but from sacred literature closely aligned with it. He’s a respected figure in his church but certainly not an evangelical and his prayer was what most people would have expected–encouraging enough to lift up the spirits of everyone present and broad enough to be acceptable to all religions.
Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Council, followed with a more biblical admonition. He encouraged the nation to remember the poor by quoting Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew then prayed by appealing directly to the name of Jesus.
Tele-evangelist Paula White-Cain concluded the invocation with words you might hear on any given Sunday in evangelical churches across America:
We come to you heavenly Father in the name of Jesus and grateful hearts, thanking you for this great country that you have decreed for your people.
After President Trump gave his inaugural address, three more ministers came to the stage to offer the benediction. Reverend Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, began by reading from 1 Timothy 2:1-5
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way…for there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus
That’s strong stuff–the last words are the heart of evangelical faith and evangelicals are unaccustomed to hearing them at an event with as wide an audience as the inauguration of a new president.
Rabbi Marvin Hier continued the benediction with a reading from the Psalms and a prayer in his Jewish tradition.
Finally, Bishop Wayne Jackson, leader of Great Faith Ministries International in Detroit and a well known African-American church leader, continued the evangelical theme
We’re not enemies. We’re brothers and sisters. We’re not adversaries, but we’re allies. We’re not foes but we’re friends. Let us be healed by the power of your love and united by the hand of your Spirit…And may the Lord bless and keep America, and make his face shine upon us, and be gracious unto us, and give us peace. In the mighty name of Jesus, Amen.
Presidential candidates will use whatever means necessary to secure the support of voting blocks necessary to their election, and their public religious actions don’t always match their private religious convictions. Richard Nixon loathed evangelicals but met regularly met with evangelist Billy Graham. Barak Obama hid whatever his true spiritual leanings were so that he could keep Jewish voters in tow. For President Trump, well, it’s too early to tell what his beliefs may be. Just because he included so many prayers in his inauguration doesn’t mean that he personally endorsed the theology those prayers expressed.
But for his sake and the sake of the nation I hope he was. The thing about the kind of believing prayer we heard last Friday is that whether Trump understood or accepted all that was said, the God at the other end did. And he honors and responds to prayers in ways no one can predict or control, even the President of the United States. For that reason prayer is more dangerous than we know and a president who risks prayers like that may get more than he bargained for.
Those prayers could move President Trump into a personal faith vibrant and mature enough to overcome the pressures, crises and heartaches that he’ll encounter in the coming four years. Those prayers could fan the flame of unity in a divided and rancorous Congress so that the members forge a common vision of government. Those prayers could bring wisdom and clarity to a Supreme Court that has acted far too often with neither. Those prayers could even ignite the national revival so many yearn for.
President Trump was widely criticized in the secular press for the religious emphasis of his inauguration. But like most of what he did in the course of the strangest and most unpredictable presidential campaign in memory, he was far ahead of his critics. Prayer as the first act of his administration was the best thing he could have done.