Praying for Electoral Victory

Praying for Electoral Victory December 29, 2016

Franklin Graham said the following at a Donald Trump rally just over a week ago, explaining why he believes Trump won the presidency:

“I don’t have any scientific information. I don’t have a stack of emails to read to you. But I have an opinion: I believe it was God. God showed up. He answered the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people across this land who had been praying for this country,” Graham told the crowd in Mobile, Ala.

To many reporters, this sounded strange. It sounded, perhaps, like Graham was suggesting God stuffed ballot boxes. But I grew up in an evangelical home. From this perspective, Graham’s language isn’t strange—it’s typical.

I grew up praying that God would influence elections. Oh, and also weather, and traffic, and I’m sure if we’d been a sports family (we weren’t) we would have been praying for God to help our teams win too. It occurs to me, though, that praying for God to change the weather is a bit different from praying for God to influence elections. After all, an all-powerful God could easily change the winds or dissipate clouds—but don’t the people who vote have free will?

We believed that people have free will, yes, but we also believed that God could influence people—that he could harden people’s hearts, or that he could make people more receptive. After all, the Bible says God “hardened pharaoh’s heart” so that he would not listen to Moses when Moses pleaded for the freedom of the Israelites. In the same way, God could soften people’s hearts.

There are other prayers, too. At one point a decade or more ago my mother told me she had stopped praying for God to save or protect our country and had started praying for God to pour out his judgement on our country. Our moral decline was too steep, she said, our lack of belief had gone too far. It is here that the story of Lot comes to mind—Lot lived in Sodom, which God had decided to destroy for its wickedness. His uncle, Abraham, begged God to spare Sodom for Lot’s sake, and God agreed to stay his wrath if he found ten righteous men in the city—but he did not.

We never prayed for specific election results with divine ballot-stuffing in mind. We prayed instead that God would soften people’s hearts and help them listen; that God would strengthen politicians and help them find the right words; that God would raise up volunteers willing to give of their energy and time. I suspect that that is what Graham was referring to when he said that “God showed up” and “answered the prayers of hundreds of thousands.”

I have a concern, though. After Graham’s words, I watched many in media react in consternation. What was Graham suggesting? That God rigged the election? That God changed the results? I worry that this sort of reaction only serves to alienate those who believe in the power of prayer—including many that would typically be part of the Democratic coalition. Making fun of comments like Graham’s may feel good, but trying to understand what Graham meant by his statement and what his followers believe about the role of prayer would be more productive if the goal is to build a coalition to create lasting progressive change.

Oh, I’m not saying we should let comments like Graham’s go by. Graham should be held to the fact that he stated God favored the candidate who was anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and so forth. Evangelical Christians do not own the Bible. More than ever, we need to elevate progressive Christian voices. We must refuse to let evangelical Christians argue that God is anti-transgender while at the same time espousing positions vis a vis the poor that run directly against the plain text of the Bible.

I believe we have an opportunity here. Progressive Christians have an opportunity to make inroads among those evangelicals disquieted by Trump, an opportunity to paint a different vision of our future based on what the Bible says about the poor, or about refugees, or about the way people treat those around us. Such inroads could have significant effects on a future Democratic coalition. But as long as evangelical Christians and others like them are faced with what looks like a greater conflict between those who believe in the power of prayer and those who laugh at prayer, we are in trouble.

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