Church visits from a president are complicated affairs, requiring layers of careful thought and planning for the potent mixture of the temporal and the eternal. President Trump is not known for holding fragile things with care, and his drop-in at McLean Bible Church on Sunday proved that yet again, in a significant departure from the approach of his predecessors.
The break with tradition is not that Trump appeared at a church. Church visits by politicians are common on both sides of the aisle, and many Democratic presidential hopefuls have spoken from pulpits in the past few months.
In my book, “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America,” I describe the significant logistical and atmospheric challenges for a president to attend church. It is inherently disruptive, because he brings the office of the presidency when he attends.
Much attention has been focused on how the church should or could have handled this situation differently, but not enough of that focus has considered the egregious course of action taken by Trump and his staff that forced this situation on the church in the first place.
What was truly outrageous about the president’s visit to McLean are those details that are specific to this president and his staff’s conduct. There we can see a manipulation and crass politicization of a house of worship that is, to my knowledge, without precedent at a national level outside of “House of Cards.”
Platt said in a statement he didn’t know Trump was coming until he had finished his sermon. Apparently, Trump’s staff notified someone at the church that he would be dropping by while en route from the golf course. I cannot overstate how unusual, how deeply disrespectful this course of action is to the local church, the sanctity of worship and the welfare of the church. This was the co-option of worship, the crashing of a service by the apparatus of the presidency.
When we approached a religious leader to discuss plans for any public partnership or involvement I tried to discuss the risks, and never pressured those who did not seem to be prepared or willing to take them. And this is what makes Trump’s appearance at McLean abhorrent to me as a Christian and as someone who has tried to engage religious communities in a way that empowers, not disempowers, them: Trump’s White House, intentionally or not, arranged its visit in a way that drastically limited the agency of the church.
The president, for all the power of his office, should never assume entree to a church stage or pulpit. The doors of the church must always be open, but a church must be given all deference to dictate its service as it sees fit. Trump and his staff know how divisive his presidency is, how much discord it has caused, and they decided to impose that conflict on a congregation. They left the church no opportunity for discernment, prayer and discussion to prepare for such a visit. It is inexcusable.
Trump is a transactional man who believes he has done much for conservative evangelicals. This latest antic provides another glimpse into just what he expects in return.
What a church visit from a president looks like
Church visits from presidents generally require multiple security and planning meetings, including many conversations with church staff. Presidential visits to St. John’s Church, which is across from the White House, became less intensive during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations because they attended multiple times and the church has protocol in place for such visits. I can speak definitively for the Obama presidency, and with significant familiarity with previous presidencies, that the pastor of any church a president would visit was expecting it and had time to prepare for that visit.
Presidential church visits can be burdensome on the church, as they often require security measures such as screening of all attendees. The president’s presence can be a distraction to the congregation’s worship, and attention from the congregation can be a distraction to the president’s worship. Then-president-elect, Obama planned to attend a historically black church weeks before his inauguration. But word leaked the previous evening, so tourists turned out and displaced much of the church membership.
The first family would sometimes have tourists’ cameras flashing in their eyes as they walked down the aisle to receive the Eucharist. The challenges can be worth it if the president desires to worship in a church, and churches are typically honored to host a president regardless of their politics, but the apparatus of the presidency is not without its burdens when it comes to attending church.
And, of course, church visits are often on politicians’ political calendars, not their personal ones. Even if attendance is driven by personal devotion, presidents and their staff can never forget that any move they make has implications. Churches and pastors must always be cognizant of those professional implications, as well. Even the most earnest president understands that there are political opportunities and costs associated with attending church. The church’s pastor, history and beliefs are often subject to press and unfriendly political interest.
Religious forums are often twisted for partisan gain. This is strikingly apparent in evangelist Franklin Graham’s call for a day of prayer to support the president this past Sunday, which happened to coincide with Trump’s visit to McLean Bible Church. As Michael Gerson wrote for The Washington Post, “Graham made clear that the real purpose of the event was not to pray for the president, but to pray in his political favor.” Graham’s call amounts to the utilitarian appropriation of prayer for partisan ends. Those ends were intentionally obfuscated to achieve their purpose of placing a religious veneer on what was an electoral effort.
This is not to say that prayer should ever be separated from a Christian’s politics. The Christians who prayed for an end to slavery were right to do so, and I believe their prayers honored God. I believe Christians need to be praying more about politics, not less. But prayer in politics, like all prayers, must be put under the will of God and divine intentions. Prayer should never be a cover for political mobilization or manipulation.
Politically or religiously convenient engagement
There are scripture-based arguments for and against hosting political figures at churches, and I believe both sides have merit. What is interesting is how the same people will invoke different arguments when they are politically convenient.
Many of the same people invoking biblical admonitions to pray for Trump argued during Obama’s terms that giving special attention to the president amounted to complicity with evil or undue esteem for political officeholders. Many of the same people who are calling today for pastors and Christian speakers to unload their disagreements and anger with the president in his presence viewed similar behavior as unprecedented disrespect when it happened during Obama’s time. This is why criticisms of Trump appearing at a church are so easily dismissed by the political right, and why explanations for why a church might host Trump are so easily dismissed by the left.
Churches that welcome political leaders should do so with the intention to share the gospel and uphold the biblical ideas of righteousness and justice, while understanding that politicians’ motivations do not always align with those intentions. Churches who reject entreaties from politicians should be careful about applying such prohibitions without a clear and consistent standard.
There will always be room in the Christian tradition for different approaches to the engagement of political leaders and issues. The line we must defend: Those decisions are ours to make, not subject to the whims and interests of politicians like Trump, who view all forums as a potential venue for their self-aggrandizement.
Michael Wear is the chief strategist for the AND Campaign. He led religious outreach for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and served in his administration. He is the author of “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America,” and writes regularly on faith, 2020 and politics on Substack.