Recent Blog Posts

Blog Post Archives

Subscribe to Blog via Email (Version 1: Wordpress)

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog via Wordpress and receive notifications of new posts by email. You will receive emails every time—and as soon as—a new post is made.

Subscribe to Blog via Email (Version 2: Feedburner)

Use this link to subscribe to this blog via Feedburner and receive notifications of new posts by email:

You will receive just one email at the end of the day (around 11:00 PM Eastern Time) summarizing all the posts made during the day.

You may also use the “By Email” link in the upper right hand corner of the page.

Don’t begrudge prayers for your political foes

On November 6th we will go to the polls to elect a President. And this renews a debate that has engaged Christians for the best part of two and a half centuries: Is it theologically acceptable to pray publicly for political leaders—particularly those who policies we bitterly oppose?

Crossing political opponents off our public prayer lists certainly satisfies an ugly human craving to strike back at our enemies. Christians, however, don’t have an option to wreak spiritual vengeance on those who offend them.

Jesus’ maxim that we should love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them that spitefully use us and persecute us (Matthew 5:44) applies just as much to politicians with whom we disagree as folks who have actually declared war on us.

Indeed, praying for the civil authorities is one of the oldest obligations of the Church. Intercessions on behalf of the government, for example, are at the very top of St. Paul’s priorities in his instructions to St. Timothy on how he is to conduct services at the Church in Ephesus.

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty,” he writes (I Timothy 2:1 & 2).

Moreover, it doesn’t matter whether or not the civil authorities in question are Christian, pagan, or even atheist. We’re obliged to pray for them no matter what their religious convictions.

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” writes Paul of the Emperor Claudius, an ardent pagan (Romans 13: 1-7), “For there is no power but of God … For he is the minister of God to thee for good…”

Our Prayer Book’s “Prayer for the President,” thus, has a long and honorable history. It was adapted in 1789 from the “Prayer for the King” in the English Book of Common Prayer. The original was first published in 1547, predating by two years the Book of 1549—the first official Prayer Book to be published in the English Language.

There was a heated debate among the revisers of 1789 as to whether or not it was appropriate for the Church to pray for a U.S. president. A president holds office for a limited term, while a monarch who holds office for life.

This wasn’t a mere matter of semantics. The English Prayer Book contains no “Prayer for the Country” because the prayer for the reigning monarch is deemed to cover this need.

Canon Norris, a 19th-century liturgical expert, explained: “It should be remembered, in all our prayers for the Queen, that we are praying for a blessing, not only on one whom we revere individually, but also on one who represents to our minds our unity and majesty as a nation …” he said.

“In praying God to bless the Sovereign of this realm, we intend to pray for a blessing on our land and nation. Were this not so, it might seem strange that nowhere in our Prayer-book in there a prayer for England.”

The argument over prayers for the U.S. president seems to have been settled by Bishop William White. In a letter to Bishop Thomas C. Brownell of Connecticut, dated February 8, 1822, he observed scornfully: “It may be questioned, whether in a government which gives no power commensurate with life, it be congruous to pray for the long life and prosperity of the first Magistrate; but it is contemptible to cavil at the title of “God’s servant,” as applied to an unbelieving President, when everyone, who understands Greek, knows he is called so in Romans xiii.4.

The prayers for the president remained in the Prayer Book. And they were apparently regarded by Americans in precisely the same way Canon Norris viewed the English supplications on behalf of their monarch—as prayer not just for an individual, but for the well–being of the nation as a whole. Indeed, it was not until the 1928 revision that the Church felt it necessary to include a “Prayer for the Country” in the BCP.

Even so, some folks might question whether it is appropriate to mention by name “Barak our President” and “Martin the Governor of our state” in prayers for civil authorities that also encompass prayers for the community as a whole. The fact of the matter is that it was always customary to do so—at least until the present bitter political partisanship abolished good manners. GPH✠

Comments are closed.