Prayers for the President: What's in a Name?

By: The Very Rev'D Michael T. Sniffen

January 13, 2017

Many public theologians and clergy in The Episcopal Church are weighing in on the issue of whether or not President-Elect Donald Trump’s name (and not just his office) should be included in our public prayers once he is inaugurated.

The answer you're looking for is yes. His name should be included for many reasons: theological, social, political, practical, biblical and historical. I’ll share a few insights about this in a minute…but first allow me to lampoon the reasons for not including his name (because I am new to writing for online readers of theology and am told that the audience appreciates snark!).

Dumping Trump's name from the prayers is a dumb idea. Here's why:

  1. If you think that excluding Donald Trump's name from your prayers for the president is somehow subversive or an act of resistance, you must be a person of extraordinary privilege. This is perhaps the wimpiest, no-cost act of subversion or resistance imaginable. Really, how tawdry. Read more Bonhoeffer. And Walter Wink (see below).

  2. Donald Trump is not Lord Voldemort. That is a fictional character from a world where people carry magic wands and ride brooms. If I'm wrong and Trump is Lord Voldemort, we should immediately gather all children with conspicuous scars or birthmarks for an evaluation of their abilities to vanquish 'he who must not be named." Avada Kedavra!

  3. If you understand Donald Trump to be an enemy or the embodiment of evil, that is a reason to name him, not the opposite. Naming those who seek to do us harm takes their power away and strips them of their unholy mystery. Throwback to No. 2...Remember that the Ministry of Magic, in their bureaucratic futility, embargoes Voldemort's name--but Harry Potter insists on saying it out loud, eventually defeating him with the support of his community! Game, set, match.

  4. This may shock you, but...people know who the President is!!! Leaving his name out of the prayers of the people does not make people of color, immigrants, women, victims of sexual violence, other nations, or people at significant economic disadvantage or without healthcare any safer. Donald Trump will be the President whether we stick our fingers in our ears and sing "holy, holy, holy" during the saying of his name, or not. Let's deal with our reality in prayer and work for the common good in deed.

  5. If you are concerned that people in the pews will be literally traumatized or re-traumatized by hearing Donald Trump's name, you seriously underestimate the strength of God's people who have survived trauma. Healing from trauma comes most profoundly when we name what we have survived or are surviving in the strength of the community on our own terms. There is no better or more effective place for the church to do this than in our common prayers.

  6. Saying Donald Trump's name five times while facing a mirror (or a lectern) will not summon him like the Candyman. Is Donald Trump unpredictable, dangerously uninformed and decidedly unhinged? Yes. Will he appear at the sound of his name to murder you with a hook jammed in the bloody stump of his right arm? Sources say no. Trump is not Beetlejuice, either. You will not call him forth from the Netherworld or Trump Tower by the incantation of his name at prayer. (Nota bene: New Yorkers have long suspected that the Netherworld and Trump Tower are the same place.)

  7. Prayers of intercession and petition are distinct from praise for a person or situation. Prayer for a person is not collusion with that person. It is not an endorsement of that person's ideas, actions or inactions. Consider this old Irish prayer:

     *May those who love us love us.* 
    
     *And those that don't love us, *
    
     *May God turn their hearts.* 
    
     *And if God doesn't turn their hearts,* 
    
     *May He turn their ankles, *
    
     *So we'll know them by their limping. *
    
  8. If we are workers of peace and justice--then prayer is our tool, not our weapon. If we weaponize prayer to strip office-holders (however potentially dangerous or malevolent) of their humanity, we rob our national and global community of the vision that the human family has problems which can only be solved by the whole human family together, with God's help. Donald Trump is a human being and a member of the human family. It does not serve any Godly purpose to minimize his humanity by naming his office only and not his self in our prayers.

Still not convinced that shunning Donald Trump’s name from the prayers is obtuse? Consider this:

*What's in a name? That which we call a rose*

*By any other name would smell as sweet.*

Do you remember this famous line from Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? The line is relevant to the consideration of Donald Trump’s name in our prayers.

In the play, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet and fall in love. From the opening scene, we are confronted with the reality that their love is doomed (star-crossed) as a result of being born into two warring families. In their inspiring struggle to love across divisions, Juliet tells Romeo that a name is a meaningless convention. She loves Romeo even though his name is Montague! Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, rejects his family name and vows to "deny (his) father" and instead be "new baptized" as Juliet's lover.

Aha! There’s an insight for us praying mortals. The idea of Romeo being “new baptized” as Juliet’s one true love is exhilarating! However, “new baptizing” Donald Trump as “The President” is not! Eliminating Donald Trump’s name, with all its baggage and freight, from our prayers - has the effect of baptizing him anew as “The President,” and leaving behind the man,“Donald Trump,” whose life and actions we know well and must not forget. Praying for him simply as “The President” decouples Donald Trump the man from the powerful office he now inhabits. This is dangerous territory. The president we are praying for is not anyone. He is Donald Trump, from the house and family of Trump. This must not be forgotten!

Do you need scriptural reasons to include Donald Trump’s name in the prayers as president even while/if you work against his policies, ignorance, bigotry, misogyny and greed? here you go:

Matthew 5: 43-46

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?

Notice that Matthew does not say, ‘pray for those who persecute you - but probably best to leave their names out to protect the innocent…’

And of course:

Luke 23:34

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus even prayed for those who were literally actively killing him. And we share the same high calling.

We have been praying for Donald Trump by name at the Cathedral of the Incarnation since the first Sunday after Election Day, even as we offered pastoral care to those who were gravely concerned about his election and those who were elated. We have been praying for him by name even as we meet with local, state and federal leaders to discuss the needs of our people and our expectation of justice, equality and safety for all. We will continue to pray for Donald Trump by name through the conclusion of his term in office whenever the President of the United States appears in the regular cycle of our prayers.

The prayers of the people are the prayers of the Body of Christ in the world. That Body remembers that the world’s leaders are human persons with names - whose words, deeds and decisions are of great consequence for all of us (for good or ill).

So, please don’t be silly. If you would normally pray for the president by name - then pray for president Donald Trump by name. Donald Trump the person, the man, the child of God, needs your/our prayers. The “Office of the President” does not need your prayers - it’s not a person, it’s a social construction...and we can talk about political philosophy as well as religion and the social process another time. If you like, I suggest that you read or re-read Walter Wink's Naming the Powers. You'll be glad you did.

Wink has much to say about power, prayer, enemies and nonviolence. Consider this pearl of wisdom from Jesus and Nonviolence: “In the final analysis, then, love of enemies is trusting God for the miracle of divine forgiveness. If God can forgive, redeem, and transform me, I must also believe that God can work such wonders with anyone. Love of enemies is seeing one's oppressors through the prism of the Reign of God--not only as they now are but also as they can become: transformed by the power of God...We are summoned to pray for our enemies' transformation, and to respond to ill-treatment with a love that not only is godly but also, I am convinced, can only be found in God.” Wowsa! That's my kind of faith!

Now, as to the argument about the Inaugural Prayer Service at the National Cathedral…

I am not able to attend. I’ll be at the Women’s March on Washington with my family, friends, neighbors, clergy and others whose rights, dignity, safety and sanity are under threat from the specter of the Trump administration. You can bet that my community and I will be praying for Donald Trump by name not only January 20th and 21st, but going forward as we work against any harm he would cause us or our fellow human beings. That’s called resistance. Leaving his name off the prayer list is called denial. I’ve tried that before and it doesn't work.

Yours in Peace and Love,

The Very Rev. Michael Sniffen,

Dean of the Cathedral

Long Island

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