Being President of the United States is hard, and one could argue that the person sitting in the Oval Office needs all the help he can get – earthly or divine.
Donald Trump was prayed for on the campaign trail. Barack Obama called his Christian faith “a sustaining force.” And George W. Bush began his second term with prayer and reflection at Washington National Cathedral.
But an image of evangelical pastors laying hands on and praying over President Trump last week has struck an especially visceral chord with critics of Trump and his policies.
The religious leaders in the Oval Office said they were praying for God to give Trump guidance, supernatural wisdom and protection.
But in the short term, their photo turned into a lightning rod.
The White Wing Evangelical Christians visit the White House, laying hands on Trump. Now Trump thinks he's Jesus. Sacrilegious.— Sena M. Sprosky (@toughlass) July 15, 2017
Chief among the critics on Saturday, was Reverend William Barber II, the leader of several morality-based protest movements that have targeted Trump and his policies.
On MSNBC’s AM Joy on Saturday morning, Barber called the now-viral photo “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.”
“When you can p-r-a-y for a president and others while they are p-r-e-y, preying on the most vulnerable, you’re violating the most sacred principles of religion,” Barber told host Joy Reid.
The attack is unsurprising given Barber’s history. He’s lashed out at politicians who he says use obscure biblical texts as scriptural cover for laws that hurt people. Barber has extended his disdain to the religious leaders who support them.
He told The Washington Post that the Bible says little about abortion, prayer in schools and same-sex marriage, but there are hundreds of scriptures that deal with how people should treat “the least of these.”
That biblical admonition, he believes, should extend to the political debate over who gets health care and who goes without, as he told Reid:
When we have this extremist Trump Republican agenda that takes health care, transfers wealth to the greedy, that’s hypocrisy and sin. Seven hundred billion dollars, Joy? You haven’t seen that kind of transfer of wealth on the backs of bodies of people since slavery. Claiming to care about life, but then passing a bill when you know thousands will die – 22 million people, poor, working people will be hurt – that is hypocrisy and sin. When you know it will hurt children, the disabled and veterans, that is sin. That is hypocrisy.
Laying hands on someone is a particularly intimate act for Evangelicals, communing with people and with God at the same time. As The Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote: Jesus’ apostles in the New Testament would touch believers. It’s seen as a sign of responsibility or authority. Many Christians lay hands on those who are being ordained in the church.
But things start to get dodgy when the practice is brought out of the church and into, well, the Oval Office.
Trump has said he is a Presbyterian, but he does not attend church regularly and has not joined any of the DC-area Presbyterian churches.
Still, white evangelicals overwhelming voted for Trump, according to the Pew Research Center. A survey in April found that 80 percent of white evangelical Protestants who attend church once a month approve of Trump’s job performance.
Johnnie Moore, who photographed the “laying hands” moment, then tweeted it, said Monday’s meeting was an informal gathering where they prayed for wisdom, that God would protect him and his family and that God would lead him. “It was normal, what a lot of us pray when we pray for elected officials,” he said. “It was like a meeting of friends.”
Still, Barber repudiated the religious leaders, who he said should be calling out Trump’s actions, not laying hands on him.
“What leaders ought to be doing is challenging the president – challenging McConnell, challenging Ryan and challenging these senators and others and not trying to appease them,” Barber said. “Instead, they’re acting like priests of the empire rather than prophets of God.”