It’s been nearly ten days since the Republican National Convention of 2016 opened with a controversial prayer that raised both enthusiasm and face-palms from people across the country. It was interesting to me watching how people responded to it. The vast majority of critics were pastors, theologians, and otherwise intelligent & educated Christians. And they weren’t just in my denomination, but from a variety of traditions, so there was clearly a broad Christian negative response to that prayer, and it was clearly a negative response. If you’re so inclined (and patient) you can watch a video of it, which I have linked above, assuming that copy on YouTube remains up. Otherwise, here is a transcript.
Ah, where to begin? There are several layers of problems involved here – from his introduction, to the context of the prayer, to the content, wording, and so forth. Thankfully I am by no means the first blogger to provide a critique of Mark Burns’ oratory at the RNC, so I am free to point out specific things that others have only glossed over.
First of all, there’s an issue with his self-introduction. A Pastor is supposed to be a representative of his Lord, Jesus Christ, or at the very least a representative of his Church or congregation. But instead he identifies himself as a resident of South Carolina. Sure, that state has a reputation for having a lot of Evangelical Christians in it, but why couldn’t he have just said so? As a Pastor, his priority is the Gospel, of which he makes no mention in his entire speech or prayer. Hans Fiene, writing for The Federalist, expounds Mark Burns’ massive missed opportunity for Christian witness here.
A second issue is his identification of Donald Trump as a man who believes in Jesus Christ. Yes, there was an article floating around recently about how Dr. Dobson claimed Trump has just converted to Christianity. But the fatal flaw in that claim is that Trump was purportedly “led to Christ” by Paula White, a known “Word of Faith” heretic. So any claim of Trump’s conversion is erroneous at best, and at worst, blasphemous, as Anne Kennedy has pointed out on her blog at Patheos. Because, really, at this point, they’re just using the name of Jesus purely for the sake of political gains.
Thirdly, this prayer was introduced as a Benediction, but it wasn’t. A biblical scholar much more famous than I, Peter Enns, has pointed out the difference between a benediction and a prayer in a recent article, as well as pointing out the general biblical context for why this attempt of marrying the cause of the Gospel with the cause of politics is such a silly idea.
As for the content of the prayer itself, John Mark Reynolds on Patheos has provided an excellent line-by-line examination of why this prayer is just so terrifically terrible.
With these references and links in place, I am free now to throw in my two cents regarding another issue of this prayer. Structurally, many formalized and public prayers contain the same basic ingredients: 1) an address, 2) a request, 3) a reason, and 4) a closing.
An Address is to God, and usually names something about God’s identity or works that has to do with the request that is coming up. In this prayer, the address is the simple cliché “Father God.”
The Request in this case begins with a thanksgiving, which is fine. The content of this thanksgiving is quite presumptuous, however, in its assertion that God is guiding Trump and giving him the words to say. Such a claim should never be made lightly, and the previously-linked articles have already deconstructed all legitimacy to Mark Burns’ claim of Trump’s divine endorsement. Other parts of the request are fine: “give him the words, give him the peace,” are good prayers for anyone. “Give him the power and authority to become the President” is not a request I could personally say “amen” to, but as prayers go it’s a legitimate request.
The Reason for the request is where what any shred of decency this prayer had is utterly lost. A good thoughtful public prayer is biblical. When we ask our heavenly Father or the Lord Jesus Christ for one thing or another, we do so in the name of Jesus and we (at least try to) ask it according to his will. Thus, when providing a reason for our request, we make a point of saying something biblical or theologically accurate. “For Your glory, O Lord” is an easy example of a good reason which fits pretty much any request we could ever make of our Creator and Savior. Mark Burns’ reason, however, is “Because we are the U.S.A. and we are the conservative Party under God.” Excuse me? National and political affiliation has absolutely no bearing upon our place before God and our right to ask our heavenly Father for anything.
And so this is why I’ve entitled this blog post “On Self-Interested Prayer.” Mark Burns’ prayer at the RNC is an example of a prayer asked out of expressly self-centered motives. If he desired the glory of God he should have said so. If he meant to say it but forgot, that is no excuse for a purportedly Christian Pastor.
Our practical take-away lesson from this nationally-viewed debacle is that when we pray, we are to seek God with His glory in mind. The Lord’s Prayer says “thy will be done.” Every time we “pray” with our own motives in charge, we are blaspheming the name of Christ by putting ourselves before God as people who are worthy through our own merit to make demands of God. No, Christ told us that there is one way to the Father, and it is through himself, the Son. Even after we are Baptized into the Christian faith and become members of the Church, we still only ever approach God through the one mediator Jesus Christ. To throw off our need for Christ in prayer is to claim a relationship with God that we simply don’t have. When you pray, seek the purposes of God, and let yours fall by the wayside. Trust Jesus on this one; it’s for the best.