Recently Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, spoke to a group of Christian conservatives (or was it conservative Christians? that’s for another time). In a video posted to Twitter by Bishop E.W. Jackson, Trump says, “Some of the people are saying, ‘Let’s pray for our leaders.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone.’ But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. And we can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling the evangelicals down the tubes. And it’s a very, very bad thing that’s happening.”
There is a rich biblical tradition of praying for governmental leaders. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments. In my book The Politics of Praise, readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146. Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king at what seems to be his coronation. It gives us a picture of what kind of leadership God blesses.
Along with devotional readings on the two psalms, I also wrote a few essays designed to help people enter the world of these amazing prayer poems. I offer you the essay on Psalm 72. I invite you to read the essay, and more importantly, prayerfully read Psalm 72. I hope you will see why and how we are called to pray for all our governmental leaders, which is not something we do, as Trump claims, for the sake of political correctness. Praying for our leaders is in fact a radical act to bring our leaders in line with God’s political agenda of justice and mercy.
The Countercultural Act of Praying for the Government
In the debate a week before the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan posed the now-famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”[i] Ever since that debate nearly every challenger to an incumbent leader or an incumbent party has asked this question in one form or another. Republican and Democratic candidates alike ask it every election cycle. Many people use this question as their main lens through which they assess how well an elected official does her job. This question perfectly fits our self-centered culture. In the United States we are consumed with self-realization, self-help, self-actualization, rational self-interest, self-assertion, and being self-made.[ii] We think all institutions—like our government, economy, schools, and even churches—exist to help us discover and make the best versions of ourselves.
Reagan’s question is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. It cuts to the core of many of our values and concerns. It is not, however, a Christian question. If we follow the prayer of Psalm 72, we see that we are to assess the quality of a leader’s job by how she uses her power to help marginalized people. Therefore the question we are to ask is not, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” but, “Is my neighbor, especially my poor and needy neighbor, better off than he was four years ago?” Jesus Christ calls us as his followers to focus not our own interests, but on the interests of others, particularly the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.[iii] This is a countercultural move and the ability to focus on the needs of others before our own does not magically appear in us. We have to pray God would shape us into generous and compassionate people. Psalm 72 is a prayer that does exactly that.
The author of Psalm 72 calls us to engage in another countercultural act: praying for our leaders. We have a national pastime of complaining about our government and its officials. We argue about them around dinner tables, at work, and in all forms of media. Political punditry is a giant industry in the United States and those who sling the most mud receive the majority of our attention. These voices demand we support or oppose our leaders, depending on whether those leaders align with the pundit’s positions. We rarely hear calls for us to pray to God for our leaders. Perhaps at the inauguration of a president or at the beginning of a legislative term we might stop and offer a pro forma prayer, but sustained, considered prayer for our government officials is not a discipline that many of us readily practice.
The psalmist calls the people of God to pray for Yahweh’s blessing on our governmental leaders. This prayer will probably cause discomfort. Depending on the leader in power, we may not want to pray, “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (72.8). We can quickly think of political leaders throughout history we are glad God did not bless with long reigns. Thankfully, the psalmist does not say the blessings for the leaders are merited simply because they are in charge. In fact, he implies Yahweh blesses those leaders who pursue God’s agenda of peace and justice.[iv]
To the extent a leader pursues God’s political agenda of helping the marginalized, we pray for Yahweh to bless her. We know a governmental leader who stands for what God values, who uses her authority to end oppression and violence, is refreshing to all people, “like rain that falls on the mown grass” (72.6). If an official does not prioritize the poor and needy, we use Psalm 72 as an indictment against her leadership. We hold up this psalm as an example of what godly political leadership should look like. When a leader prioritizes her own career advancement above the good of the community, vilifies the poor and needy, unfairly privileges the rich and powerful (or even the middle class), feeds our self-centered natures, or worse, engages in oppression and violence, we use Psalm 72 as a guide to pray for her repentance.
We should pause for a moment before wading into these psalms. Readers will note the psalmists do not address many of the specific political debates we face today. We receive no instruction on whether we should adopt the liberal vision of a larger government or the conservative vision of a smaller government. The psalmists do not say how much a government should manipulate financial markets. They do not mention whether more power should rest at the local or the federal levels. The silence on these matters means they are open for Christians to debate in good faith and in doing so we have an opportunity to set an example for our society on how to discuss and disagree civilly. But as we debate the shape and size of government, as we consider what laws we should have, as candidates propose their agendas, Psalm 72 gives us a lens through which we evaluate all these matters.
The values the psalmist describes should frame the discussion. God calls all of us to make the case that our political positions will best give deliverance to the needy. If a member of Congress believes businesses should run without much government interference, we who pray Psalm 72 will demand he show how free enterprise can better help the marginalized. If a city council member believes corporations need to be more closely regulated, we readers of the Psalms will demand he show how such regulation can better help the dispossessed. If we are shaped by this psalm, we will ask, “Who primarily benefits from this proposed law? Will this law help people suffering under oppression? What size and shape of government best helps poor people?” As we listen to politicians, we will require they show how their agendas will help our most vulnerable neighbors.
The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146 is available in paperback and the Kindle format at Amazon.com.
[i] Reagan’s expanded on the question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” “October 28, 1980 Debate Transcript,” accessed December 21, 2014, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-28-1980-debate-transcript.
[ii] See Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, for a wonderful treatment showing how praying the psalms takes our focus away from the self and places it back on God.
[iv] As we pray these psalms we also become aware of the differences between our context and the political contexts when these prayers were written. Psalm 72 in particular raises questions of how we pray for political leaders when the Church is not tied to any particular nation.