Pandemics and Prayers

President Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Pence is not a public health professional and has a checkered history with managing the government’s response to medical emergencies. But he does pray and knows now to lead prayer and knows how to inspire millions of Christians to pray.


But when a photograph of Pence leading a prayer in the White House was widely distributed, it generated mixed reactions. Some praised it as confirming their desire to see the Almighty given proper attention in the halls of power; others panned it as substituting religion for science and public policy.


My response, also, was double sided.


On the one hand, I was disheartened (but not surprised) by who is in the picture and who is not! Seventeen people are pictured in prayer, all (apparently) white people; fifteen of them (and all those seated on couches in the inner circle) are men. Two women stand on the outer fringe of the group, and one can’t help but suspect they are aides called into assist the decision-makers.


There are no obvious signs of religious or cultural diversity in the group: no yarmulke, hijab, turban, or other indicator that this group represented the full range of Americans who pray. We have become accustomed to this presidential preference for white men of a certain Christian persuasion.


On the other hand, I pray for our leaders—local, regional, and national—and I am heartened when they also pray. Prayer is an act of humility, and people of power especially need this reminder of their need for help. Prayer is calling out to God, and it sounds the same from the addict sleeping under the bridge as it does from the doctor working in the lab.


We need help.


The White House needs help. Our nation needs help. The world needs help. We all need to pray, to pray together, to pray regularly, to pray believing that God hears the prayers of both the addict and the doctor. We need to pray as a prelude to the actual work that will protect the people, and treat the sick, and find a cure.


I do not disdain the elites who pray: for wisdom to govern, courage to act, patience to listen, strength to forgive, resolve to resist personal gain in favor of public good, grace to see the goodness of God in the face of every person regardless of nationality, religion, education, or ideology.


I fear those, however, who use their praying as an excuse to neglect their work; and this goes on in homes, churches, and schools all over the nation. I am not surprised that it happens also in Washington, in Congress, and in the White House. Too many elected people want to pray and stop, throwing all the responsibility heavenward in the hopes that a divine intervention will rescue us from disease, danger, destruction, and death.


And this is precisely what has happened.


Before, during, and after appointing his vice president to assume leadership in policy and prayer, Trump exercised his power to dismiss the  scientists, the doctors, and the public health officials whose talent we so desperately need to face the crisis before us. Prayer without action—in this case, the kind of action that only scientists, doctors, and public health officials can do—is no prayer at all. It is the sounding of gongs and the clanging of cymbals. It is false, and frivolous, and fake.


In every situation, God does all that God can do—so wrote the late, great theologian Frank Tupper partially in response to the midlife dying of his first and only wife. Surely the pandemic that was gathering strength just as he was losing his stands as exhibit A in support of his thesis. God hears our prayers, but not even God can answer our prayers if we disrespect the very means by which God intends to save us.


In the end, I tolerate and commend the prayers even of the narrow-minded folk who gather in the White House these days, but only if before they bow the head, bend the knee, or fall prostrate on the floor they get up early and stay up late working in the labs, on the streets, and around all the corners of the world. God is not willing that any should perish—not now, not ever.


Hear our prayer, O Lord, for the Glory of God and the Common Good.


(March 2020)