Was Trump’s Prayer a Photo Op?

Johnnie Moore, @JohnnieM, runs a public relations firm.

Praying for Trump is good. Using that prayer as a photo op? Not so much.

Johnnie Moore, who once managed communications for Liberty University and who now runs a public relations firm, tweeted an image on Tuesday of evangelical pastors laying on hands and praying for Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Trump is, as evangelicals like to say, “standing in the need of prayer.” He is having a difficult time on all fronts—with the lowest approval rating in history at this point in a presidency. His agenda has stalled in Congress. The Russia investigation is taking its toll. His son’s contacts with Russians are currently being scrutinized.

The prayer itself isn’t the problem, though some Americans do view it as a blurring of the line separating church and state. However, we have a long history of leaders seeking support from their faith community, and Congress and our military have chaplains to minister to their spiritual needs. And unless our country changes a great deal demographically, that isn’t likely to change soon.

Almost every president, like Trump, has had a spiritual adviser among his support network, and presidents regularly attend the National Prayer Breakfast, hosted annually by members of Congress.

The problem here is that Johnnie Moore isn’t a pastor. So why was he invited to attend? According to his website, he has been featured in the Washington Post and named by a P.R. news publication as “one of America’s top young P.R. executives.” The first sentence on his Who Are We page proclaims, “We are the go-to personal counselors for leaders and those interested in them who want to sharpen their public image.”

Johnnie Moore was in the room with a group of pastors, all of whom had their eyes closed as one of the pastors prayed. Johnnie, or whoever took this picture, was not praying. The photographer, eyes wide open, snapped pictures, ensuring that Johnnie had an image that could be posted on Twitter on Tuesday morning. As of this post, it has been retweeted over 7000 times.

This is yet another example of the type of hypocrisy Christ abhorred. Over and over again, he condemned religious leaders who put their piety on exhibit for the world to see while they ignored the plight of the elderly, the sick, the poor.

Every Christian alive believes that Jesus taught us how to pray, and the Lord’s Prayer has tumbled from Christians’ lips millions and millions of times in the past 2000 years. According to the Gospel of Matthew, here is how Christ introduces that prayer:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way…” (Matthew 6: 1, 5-9, NRSV).

Yes, we Christians do pray in public. Yes, we Christians do pray behind closed doors with small groups of friends, believing that, as Christ said, whenever two or three are gathered in God’s name, the Spirit is in our midst.

But having a public relations firm record a prayer to show off piety seems to be exactly the kind of behavior Christ condemned. A thinking person has to wonder who invited Moore to be a part of the gathering and why.

Over and over again, Americans ask how 81% of evangelicals voted for this man who was recorded saying horrible things about many people but particularly about women. How it is, they ask, that the video destroyed the career of Billy Bush but had no effect on the man who actually said those things?

Not all evangelicals defend Trump or his policies, of course. Jim Wallis and his team at Sojourners spend their lives advocating for the least among us. Jonathan Merritt, at the Religious News Service, calls out hypocrisy in his writing and shows strength and courage when he is attacked for trying to bring about change in the Church. But for now they and those like them are a minority among evangelicals.

As a former evangelical, I am deeply troubled that these pastors would participate in a campaign to change Trump’s image instead of his heart.

But I’m not surprised. In my own experience, which led me to choose another faith tradition as a young adult, I saw many examples of men who used the Bible as a club to beat down those who dared question them.

It has taken me most of a lifetime to have the courage to challenge such thinking. But if I would call myself Christ-like—which these days I prefer to the label of Christian—then I must follow Christ’s example. He challenged authority, once even losing his temper in the temple over the hypocrisy of religious leaders.

I lose my temper. I rant sometimes. I find it hard, though, to call on the wisdom and courage of Christ in speaking truth to authority.

But if I would call myself Christian, I can do no less.

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