Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Prayers and theological malpractice

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, did not like the news photo of evangelical leaders gathered in the White House to pray for and "lay hands on" President Donald Trump. I can't really blame him. I found the picture of that scene disturbing, and I have found the evangelical support of Trump throughout the presidential campaign and presidency a mystery and an abandonment of Christian principles. Many evangelicals continue to support Trump, despite his habitual lying, his personal insults, prideful mendacity and his lack of Christian compassion and humility.

But Barber's reaction went beyond my own disgust and disappointment with Christian leaders who have forsaken Christian principles for political gain. Barber has declared praying for Trump to be "theological malpractice bordering on heresy." Barber seems to forget that Jesus urged his followers to "love your enemies" and "pray for those" who hate you or use you.

I don't know the nature of the prayers the evangelicals uttered in the White House, but I would hope that they prayed for divine guidance for the nation's leader. He needs all the divine guidance he can get, even though he shows little evidence of Christian devotion, humility or openness to change.

Is it wrong to pray for someone you disagree with or who has done wrong? Surely any Christian, evangelical or not, would agree that praying for others is a religious practice, if not an obligation. I think of the survivors of the Mother Emmanuel Church massacre who publicly declared that they had forgiven the racist gunman who murdered nine church members at a Bible study, and they would pray for him. Such forgiveness and compassion is a Christian witness.

Barber's wrapping of his own political agenda in a religious cloak is not surprising. It is his standard methodology. The protests against the Republican state legislators in Raleigh were not just a political statement; they were moral judgments. Barber named the weekly protests "Moral Mondays." Although I agree with the protesters' opposition to many of the actions of the General Assembly, I recognize that no political party or faction has a monopoly on morality.

I was introduced to Barber about a decade ago, when he was selected as keynote speaker at Wilson's annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast. The breakfast enjoyed broad biracial support and had become a convivial celebration of community diversity. Speakers in previous years had praised King's nonviolent approach to racial equality and his principle of brotherhood all people.

Barber took a different tack. He angrily and loudly vilified the white community in general and specific white politicians (all Republicans). Before his speech ended, people began leaving. The joyful highs that had concluded previous MLK breakfasts were missing after Barber's speech. A member of the MLK celebration told me later that Barber had nearly destroyed the annual breakfast, causing it to lose much of its business and corporate support.

Barber's critique of his political adversaries is not heretical, but it does weaken the moral foundation of religion. If all morality is politically based, it is no longer morality. If religious principles are based on politics, it's not sound religion.

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