The National Day of Prayer is held on the first Thursday of May every year, which in 2019 fell on May 2. But last week, Rev. Franklin Graham called for Sunday, June 2, to be a “special Day of Prayer for the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.”
In a statement on Facebook, Graham said, “President Trump’s enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family, and the presidency. In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has. I believe the only hope for him, and this nation, is God.”
The president marked the event Sunday with an unannounced appearance at McLean Bible Church in suburban Virginia, where he received the blessings of the minister and congregation.
Trump removed a white “USA” baseball cap, waving to people in the pews as he approached the podium and stood beside Pastor David Platt. News reports said the president’s visit at the church, which lasted just a few minutes, followed a morning at his golf resort.
“I want to ask us to bow our heads together now and pray for our president,” Platt told the congregation before he placed his hand on the president’s shoulder offered a brief prayer for Trump and other political leaders.
The National Day of Prayer is a longstanding — and somewhat controversial — official event that goes back decades and has involved Congress and proclamations from presidents of both parties.
The idea is to have people pray for the good of the country in a non-denominational and innocuous, even anodyne, way. Conservative evangelical Christians always participate, but they occupy the space alongside many other religions and do not dictate the message. Some groups have used the day to push their own agendas, but for Graham to declare a second special day of prayer specifically for the president is unique.
“By calling his own Day of Prayer, Graham gets to control the message,” said Dr. Emily Johnson, assistant professor of history at Ball State University. Johnson could not think of a precedent in modern U.S. history, but she did note that the Puritans regularly called National Days of Prayer or Thanksgiving or Repentance.
The people Graham says are supporters of the idea make up a Who’s Who list of the Religious Right. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), James Dobson, Jack Graham, Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Robert Jeffress are all listed as supporting Graham’s call for prayer.
Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey, president of the Religious Institute and a pastor with Metropolitan Community Churches, was struck by the difference in tone and messaging of Sunday’s planned event.
“In most faith communities around the country, we pray for our leaders all the time. This is just a very different orientation,” she told ThinkProgress.
“This is very different from the way in which we pray for leaders which is that they serve the common good in the interest of peace. We believe it’s important to lift up the leaders of the world because they have the power to to do good and pursue peace and justice. It’s hard for me to pray for people who are in a position of power because they are in a position of power. I think for those of us in more progressive or mainline traditions that this will not change anything about the way we pray.”
Graham, son of the late televangelist Rev. Billy Graham, has not shied away from partisan politics. In 2016, he spent months traveling the country on a “Decision America” tour, urging people to vote on “biblical principles.” What that meant in a race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was simple, according to an interview he gave to the Christian Post.
“First of all, when it comes to the presidential election, it’s not about emails that are lost, it’s not about crude and vulgar language,” he said. “That’s not what this vote is about. It’s about the Supreme Court.”
According to Johnson, Graham was likely motivated by fights over women’s health. “The timing of the event is most obviously about the recent controversy over restrictive abortion laws being passed in various states,” she said.
“We’ve seen renewed anti-Trump activism from the left, and especially from the women’s movement. But Trump’s promises to appoint pro-life judges and justices were a key reason that evangelicals supported Trump in 2016. I think Graham’s Day of Prayer works in part to counter the negative reaction to these laws and to remind Trump that his supporters are still with him.”
The relationship Trump has with white conservative evangelical voters is a strong one. They backed him 80 to 16 in the 2016 election, and 69% said they approved of the president in a January 2019 Pew survey, down just a bit from a high of 78% as Trump was inaugurated in 2017. The last two years have seen the Trump administration hand the Religious Right big-ticket victories like filling two Supreme Court vacancies and smaller-profile rule changes on reproductive and LGBTQ rights.
“The Trump White House has given the Religious Right unprecedented access and influence on federal policies,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “In return, white evangelical Christians form Trump’s most vocal and loyal base of supporters.”
“Trump and his allies at the state and federal levels have crystallized something that was already there and growing: an agenda to maintain white Christian privilege, which is motivated by fear of the changing demographics in America,” said Laser.
Graham and his allies are sounding the alarm for the faithful that President Trump needs their prayers as he fights off his enemies, implying that the Religious Right is waging an uphill battle against their more secular foes.
But the first two years of the Trump administration have shown that in exchange for their unadulterated support of a president who has not spent his life deeply in faith or advocating for their beliefs, the Religious Right has received an enormous amount from the Trump administration.
The judicial system
Very quickly, starting with the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and continuing with lower courts, the Trump administration has nominated right-wing judges to fill dozens of judicial vacancies. Though some of the more extreme and less-qualified candidates failed to get a formal nomination or confirmation, there are many who espouse radical views who have been appointed to lifetime positions on the bench.
“The Trump administration has delivered on its promise made during the election to give them the judges they want,” said Nan Aron, founder and president of Alliance for Justice. “Nearly every nominee to the bench has displayed hostility on LGBT rights, abortion rights, etc.”
Aron said the Religious Right has been trying to transform the judiciary for decades. The exchange is political support for conservative judges. “They form a very potent constituency within the Republican party,” she said. “Does Donald Trump know much about federal judges and what they do? Probably not. But he was told by his advisers that it was the best way to get their support.”
“They’ve already received the gifts they’ve asked for — two Supreme Court seats and scores of lower court judges that hold their views.”
“The most effective way to nurture the Religious Right and right-wing base in this country is to remind constituents that Trump is acting on his promises to them. He’s accomplishing something by giving them what they want, and this is what they want.”
Protecting discriminatory adoption agencies
At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Trump praised “faith-based adoption agencies” currently fighting off legal challenges for discriminating against same-sex couples looking to adopt children who need homes. In January, his administration granted a waiver to a South Carolina adoption agency so it could ignore an Obama administration rule prohibiting discrimination against same-sex couples and Jewish families.
Banning transgender people from serving in the military
In 2017, the Trump administration decided to ban transgender people from serving in the military. This is especially problematic because for many years, transgender people served in the military but not openly. The Obama administration reversed course in 2016 to allow transgender people to serve openly, and thousands of people made themselves known in active and reserve duty as transgender. The Trump administration reversal meant that those servicemembers could no longer serve. This year, the administration began discharging transgender servicemembers, and as of April 12, no transgender person will be allowed to enlist.
Allowing discrimination against transgender people in health care
Last week, the Trump administration targeted “Section 1557” in the Affordable Care Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of “sex.” The Obama administration had interpreted this to mean gender identity, but the Trump Department of Health and Human Services argued that not only should gender identity not be protected, but sex stereotyping of any kind should not be protected.
Earlier this month, the administration also finalized the “conscience rule” which allows health care workers to refuse to treat people due to religious or moral objections. This threatens the lives of LGBTQ people who need medical care.
Rescinding workplace and school protections for transgender people
In 2017, the Trump Justice Department announced it would stop arguing that workplace protections on the basis of sex included protections for transgender people. This was after the department issued guidance that schools no longer had to protect transgender students.
Waging war against the Johnson amendment
Trump has often claimed that he has gotten rid of the Johnson amendment, an item in the tax code that prohibits churches and other nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. He issued an executive order in May 2017 that claimed at the time did away with the amendment, although his own Justice Department said in court that it did not. It remains a top priority of the Religious Right to repeal the Johnson Amendment, though Trump has claimed victory on the matter and seemingly moved on.
Birth control rule
The administration finalized a rule last year that permits employers to use religion as their justification for refusing access to birth control coverage.
This story has been updated to include the president’s appearance Sunday at a church service in Virginia.