Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States on Friday. Will you pray for him?
That’s a question many Americans will be facing — especially the millions who voted for someone else in November. Surely, we all want what’s best for the country. But, after such a contentious election, are we willing to pray for Trump as his administration takes power?
Whatever the answer, and whether it is voiced silently in private or publicly as a faith community, the question speaks to a larger issue: Should we, as Jesus famously instructed in the Gospel of Matthew, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Should we pray for colleagues we resent at work, the neighbors we clash with over local politics, the so-called friends who continually snub us and the family members who wound us so with their words?
“The most radical commandment is to love our enemies,” said Robert Trawick, a professor of religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkhill, N.Y. “It’s very easy to love the people we like. That doesn’t cut it.”
Whether “good” people can and should pray for “bad” people (who’s who so often depends on the beholder) is an ages-old conundrum. I posed the question to clerics, professors, writers and faith-based activists.
Stephen T. Asma, a Columbia College Chicago philosophy professor and the author of, among other works, “Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey,” wrote in an email that ancient Greek and Roman pagans would have prayed for those they love.
Mainstream Christianity’s call to pray for strangers and enemies means, he wrote, “your religious piety is more profound, if you can muster the strength to (pray) for people you don’t even like. That’s the kind of piety that tilts toward sainthood.”
Jane Larkin of Dallas, who has described herself as the “Jewish half of an interfaith couple,” said the Ten Commandments tell us to honor our mothers, fathers and elders — we don’t have to like or love them.
“We’re called upon to do it,” explained Larkin, author of “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.”
“Me? I pray for peace, and leave the ways in which it can be effected open,” wrote Vasudha Narayanan, director of the University of Florida’s Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions in Gainesville, Fla., in an email. “If that means praying for the wicked souls, yes, why not, after all, who is to say I am better or worse than them in so many ways?”
The Rev. Peggy Clarke, minister at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., wrote in an email that, as a Unitarian Universalist, she doesn’t “divide” people into “good” and “bad.” In praying for one “who has done bad things, I am shifting my own way of understanding them, knowing them to be human and vulnerable and in need of a new way. I am recognizing our interdependence.”
Prayer “is a practice that changes me, changes my heart,” said the Rev. Canon Michael Hunn, the presiding bishop’s canon for ministry within the Episcopal Church, who is based in New York City and Raleigh, N.C. Pray for someone, and “it’s hard to see them as an enemy for very long.”
Asma believes prayer helps the person praying by “giving religious people a sense of hope and influence in situations where they have little or no real power. This is not just delusional, but psychologically helpful — even if it’s placebo effect.”
But both Hunn and Trawicksee prayer as a call for action. Hunn talks of it as a “lament,” a “crying out against injustice.” And Trawick points out that one can pray for another “without being a patsy.”
“Praying for an enemy doesn’t mean you have to accept everything they do,” explained Trawick, who is Presbyterian, circling back to the recent election.
“We need him to succeed in some ways,” Trawick said of Trump. Praying for him to fail would be akin to how the Republican-dominated Congress reacted to President Barack Obama, he pointed out.
Sahar Alsahlani, who comes from the Shiite tradition of Islam and is an interfaith peace activist, said the incoming administration stands for almost everything liberal faith-based activists are against. Yet, she hopes Trump finds “some sort of internal peace” to govern wisely.
“Do I want him to fail? No. I wish him the best,” said Alsahlani. “All we can do is organize, mobilize, show faith through community service.”
And pray. Praying for our leaders is a tradition, Hunn noted.
“We try to surround them with prayer, whether we like them or not,” he said.