On Thursday, his first National Day of Prayer in the White House, Donald Trump invited the preachers who thanked God for his election to stand in as backdrop for an executive order on “religious liberty.” These so-called “evangelicals” could not endorse candidate Trump from their pulpits (though they will be able to now). But they made their allegiance clear throughout last year’s campaign. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association alone dedicated $10 million to the cause.
Thursday’s political theater is the primetime coverage their investment bought. But this ad-buy is a long time coming, with roots going back to the Truman administration. As part of a larger movement that Princeton historian Kevin Kruse chronicles in his book One Nation Under God, the National Day of Prayer served to create a civil religion in America that blesses corporate interests and silences prophetic critique. The gaudy spectacle of today’s hypocritical ceremony is a culmination of decades of National Days of Prayer. But this is not the prayer that the God of the Bible hears.
American history is filled with religious voices on both sides of our great public debates. Abolitionists cited the Bible as they preached about slavery; slave-holding plantation owners paid preachers to refute them with other verses from the same Bible. Likewise, Reconstruction and the white supremacy campaign waged against it in the late 19th century were framed in religious terms (when white supremacy won, they called it Redemption).
In the early 20th century, as the excesses of the Gilded Age pushed the nation toward its Great Depression, the Social Gospel movement influenced members of both political parties. An economy that ravaged people and creation for profit wasn’t simply unwise. It was ungodly. Bi-partisan support for industrial regulation, child labor laws, environmental protection, rural health care, public work, and education were the fruit of a moral movement.
But they were not unopposed. The captains of capital who controlled Chambers of Commerce and sat on the boards of large corporations saw FDR’s New Deal cutting into their bottom line. In the wake of the Depression, they knew they did not have the moral authority to challenge the Social Gospel. So they hired preachers to do it. Through their support of organizations such as Spiritual Mobilization, The Family, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, corporate America sponsored the rise of a generation of preachers who eschewed the Social Gospel to embrace an individualized piety that prized “liberty” and a free market.
Their culture war was not partisan, but after Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party in 1968, it pushed consistently toward extremism. The movement that had given rise to the National Day of Prayer had never been about a single party’s platform. It was always, like Donald Trump’s White House, committed to the well-being of the American corporation above all else.
Thursday’s celebration, then, could not be more fitting. The richest cabinet in U.S. history is serving the interests of Wall Street, while America’s first family serves its own financial interest, and the religious leaders who are willing to bless that can have their “religious liberty.” This is what the forces behind the National Day of Prayer have always wanted.
But they have never heard the prayers of most Americans, and their public spectacle doesn’t represent the God who hears those prayers. In Exodus, when God first spoke to Moses, the voice from the burning bush said, “I have seen the oppression of my people… I have heard their prayers.” When the National Day of Prayer was established by Congress in 1952, Rosa Parks, who suffered with millions of fellow Americans under the oppression of Jim Crow, was crying out to this God. When she and her co-workers organized a bus boycott a few years later, their spokesperson, Dr. Martin Luther King, framed their struggle in moral terms. “If we are wrong,” he said in his first speak to the Montgomery Improvement Association, “then God Almighty is wrong.”
God was not wrong, and the moral movement that sustained Montgomery’s bus boycott for over a year spread across the nation, resonating with the prayers of Jewish rabbis and Catholic Chicanos, Native Americans on reservations and sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Though white ministers in Birmingham cautioned Dr. King against asking for too much too fast, their words are largely forgotten. We remember Dr. King, who went to jail to insist that the “moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
If today is the fulfillment of the corporatists’ National Day of Prayer, it may also be its undoing. The God of justice hears the cries of those this executive order targets, along with the prayers of all who suffer under this administration. A religious liberty that gives license for discrimination against women and the LGBTQ community is nothing more than lust for power dressed up in a thinning religious garb. The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency has inspired a moral resistance that is not going away, but is building a movement that will bend the arc of our common life toward justice for years to come. This, too, is an answer to prayer. And it may yet save the heart of our democracy.
Rev. Barber is chief architect of Moral Mondays, founder of Repairers of the Breach, and author of The Third Reconstruction (Beacon Press).