Should we avoid praying for Donald Trump by name in public worship?

Mike Kinman (rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA) explains why his church will not pray for Donald Trump by name in their public services, even though they prayed for President Obama by name. He writes:

We are in a unique situation in my lifetime where we have a president elect whose name is literally a trauma trigger to some people – particularly women and people who, because of his words and actions, he represents an active danger to health and safety.

This presents a challenge. We are rightly charged with praying for our leaders … but we are also charged with keeping the worshipping community, while certainly not challenge-free, a place of safety from harm. As I have said before, for some it could be as if we demanded a battered woman pray for her abuser by name. It’s not that the abuser doesn’t need prayer – certainly the opposite – but prayer should never be a trauma-causing act.

The question is – does saying the president’s name in prayer in this way compromise the safety of the worshipping community? Let me be clear that I believe this is a high bar … much more than “I disagree with the president” or even “the president deeply offends me.” This is the level of compromising the safety of the worshipping community.

The Bible does command Christians to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2), but there is no requirement that we must do so by name. So I don’t want to go beyond what scripture says about how explicit our prayers must be. I don’t think we have to say every leader’s name in order to pray for them faithfully in public worship. Having said that, I have a few concerns about the rationale given by the rector above:

First, I am skeptical about this reluctance to name someone whom we will be referring to anyway. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that the president-elect is as scary as some people fear. I can’t help but think about the Harry Potter stories in which Harry is the only person willing to say the name “Voldemort.” No one else would utter “Voldemort” because the mere mention of his name made them fearful and anxious. Harry stood out because he knew no such fear. His willingness to say the name contrasted his courage with everyone else’s fear. Likewise, could a reluctance to say Trump’s name be catering to fear? Shouldn’t the gospel be casting out such fear?  Because the Bible commands us to pray for our leaders, we are going to pray for the president one way or the other. That means that we are still going to be referring to Mr. Trump in public worship even if we don’t say the name “Trump.” We are still going to be drawing the same person to people’s minds. If we treat him as “him who shall not be named,” I am concerned that we might communicate fear rather than courage to congregants.

Second, we have been praying for President Obama by name at our church. If we were to avoid praying for President Trump by name, I don’t know how that wouldn’t be perceived as a partisan statement (at least by some). Shouldn’t we avoid the appearance of partisanship in our prayers for our leaders?  If your tradition has been to pray generically for “the president,” then no problem continuing that in the new administration. If your tradition has been to pray for the president by name, then people will notice when you stop doing that for the new president. And they may view it as a political statement.

Third, “trigger warnings” have a poor track-record in institutions of higher education, where they have become ubiquitous. In colleges and universities, there is growing evidence that this sensitivity to “triggers” has done little to educate or to shape the character of students in positive ways. In fact, the opposite seems to have taken place, and much speech has been shut down and squelched by hyper-sensitivity to “triggers.” I can’t imagine how it would be helpful to cultivate such censorious sensitivities within the church. One could make the case that the Bible itself is just one giant “trigger.” Are we going to self-censor the “triggers” from scripture too? Many churches already do that, even though they may not admit it in so many words. And that is not a faithful path for any congregation to go down.

There is a Proverb that says this: “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, But the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1). Sensitivity to triggers seems to cater to those who are constantly fleeing, even when there is no real danger afoot. If we want to teach God’s people to be as “bold as a lion,” avoiding Trump’s name is unlikely to help. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.

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