Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi resisted calls from members of her own Democratic caucus to impeach Donald Trump for months. And as the bells of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors have been ringing over the president’s alleged withholding of military aid for Ukraine in order to get political dirt on Joe Biden, the speaker has moved cautiously. Prayerfully, even.
On December 5, a reporter shouted a question at Pelosi as she walked away from her press conference: “Do you hate the president?” Pelosi took offense and returned to her podium.
“As a Catholic, I resent you using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me,” she said. “I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is heart full of love, and I always pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time. Don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.”
This wasn’t an off-the-cuff response from Pelosi. She’s been espousing a prayerful posture to impeachment throughout the process.
“It’s really sad,” Pelosi said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe the day after the initial whistleblower complaint became public. “We have to be very prayerful. I pray for the president all the time. I pray for the safety of his family—wish he would pay for the safety of other families and do something on guns—but I also pray that God will illuminate him to see right from wrong.”
As her caucus met on the morning of the first House vote on impeachment, the speaker asked Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO)—who is also a Methodist pastor—to lead their colleagues in prayer.
The speaker’s approach to prayerful deliberation of a serious constitutional matter couldn’t be any farther from the throw-everything-at-the-wall approach of the president and his allies. The Washington Post counted 24 distinct defenses of Trump and his treatment of Ukraine from his supporters. Trump himself keeps repeating that his actions were “perfect” and attacking the Democrats.
Pelosi is far from the only leader praying for the president. There are, we know, many conservative Christian leaders who are praying for the president. They have gathered more than once at the White House to pray over him during the impeachment fight. Their prayers, though, at least the ones broadcast in public spaces, seem more about rallying support behind the president than seeking God’s help in searching for the truth about the president’s alleged abuses of power. Like Trump himself, many of his religious right supporters reject concerns raised by the intelligence community without considering the evidence.
The differing approaches of Pelosi and Trump—both self-proclaimed Christians—mirror the disparate reactions from Christian leaders and groups in the United States. Progressive Christians have called for prayer and reflection as Congress searches for the truth. Conservative Christians have continued their prayer from the 2016 campaign and the Trump White House: asking God to help Trump, which in turn helps enact conservative policies they support.
As the impeachment inquiry was set to begin, more than 100 progressive leaders from evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and historically black congregations came together to sign a letter organized by Red Letter Christians supporting the inquiry in order to find out the facts. It read, “For the sake of our nation’s integrity and the most vulnerable in our society, we call on fellow Christians to support the current impeachment inquiry. Now is the time to shine the light of truth. Please join us in praying that the truth will be revealed and set us all free.” The leaders organized a day of prayer on October 13.
More than 12,000 people also signed a petition supporting the impeachment inquiry that was organized by the Christian social justice group Faithful America. It stated that “President Donald Trump’s hateful agenda and immoral policies are intrinsically tied to his abuses of power. Whenever an authoritarian leader is able to tighten his grip and weaken democracy, justice and equality are put at risk—and the vulnerable among us suffer the most.”
(I signed Red Letter Christians’ letter, and I’m a consultant for Faithful America but did not have any involvement with this specific campaign.)
My own personal experience with praying for our nation to revolt against this president and his agenda started the day after his election with prayers of mourning. A few months after his inauguration, I began publishing a daily devotional to help equip Christians to spiritually and politically resist the Trump administration. The Resistance Prays—which reaches more than 10,000 people on Facebook and 4,000 email subscribers—has grown over the past two-plus years to include more than 80 contributors, a book club, and partnerships with other progressive Christian organizations.
I started the devotional because I noticed so many Christians showing up to protest this administration’s policies with signs of handwritten Bible quotes, including at the Women’s March and at the airport protests against President Trump’s “Muslim ban.” I knew people were praying with their feet—in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—and also praying to God with words for a revolution of values in our nation.
These prayers for truth and justice are in stark contrast to how conservative Christian leaders have reacted to impeachment. This reaction was captured well in a recent interview that popular evangelical author Eric Metaxas conducted on his radio show with the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and head of Samaritan’s Purse. Graham said that the impeachment inquiry was “almost a demonic power.” Metaxas added, “It is a spiritual battle.”
Likewise, new White House staffer and prosperity-gospel preacher Paula White riffed on Ephesians 6:12 at the June kickoff rally for the president’s re-election campaign: “We are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, against rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. So right now, let every demonic network that has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus.”
This is the Trumpian approach: Everything is a battle between the president and his opponents, whether on that day they are the media or Nancy Pelosi or another foe. The only light between Trump and the religious right is the spiritualization of the battle. While Trump has stumbled when he tries to speak as a Christian himself (like his utterance of “Two Corinthians”), he does realize the political benefit of catering to his conservative Christian base.
While the religious right ratchets up their defense of Trump, the president and his allies are also emphasizing how God put Trump in the White House. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is implicated himself in the Ukraine bribery scandal, went on Fox & Friends to say that Trump is “the chosen one” and “sent by God to do great things.” Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale echoed that sentiment earlier this year on Twitter. “Only God could deliver such a savior to our nation, and only God could allow me to help,” he wrote. “God bless America!”
While these are the dominant voices of conservative Christianity, there continue to be a few “Never Trump” evangelical writers including Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson. But even in his column on the embarrassment he feels about white evangelical support for Trump, Gerson notes, “An extraordinary 99 percent of Republican [white evangelical Protestants] oppose the impeachment and removal of the president—which probably puts me in the smallest political minority I have ever had the honor of occupying.”
How are American Christians overall reacting to different arguments from faith leaders and politicians about impeachment? While Christians are split on the issue, they support impeachment slightly less than people of other faiths and the public-at-large. A Morning Consult/POLITICO poll fielded in late November asked: “Do you support or oppose the current impeachment inquiry into President Trump?” Forty-one percent of Christians support the inquiry compared to 54 percent opposing the inquiry. Americans of other faiths support the impeachment inquiry 72 percent to 22 percent, while all registered voters come in at 48 percent supporting and 43 percent opposing. Other polls that don’t include religious breakdowns have found support for impeachment increasing since this poll was conducted.
While there’s no data to shed light on how many Christians are basing their views on impeachment on what Christian leaders are saying, the religious breakdown of support for the impeachment inquiry points toward the imbalance in which Christian leaders have positioned themselves on the issue.
Imagine a seesaw of Christian views on impeachment. On the one side, the religious right is putting all of their weight behind opposing impeachment. They are not prayerfully considering the evidence. Trump is the “chosen one” so they come to his defense at every turn. On the other end of the seesaw are Christian leaders weighing the evidence and cautiously proceeding. This mirrors the approach of Speaker Pelosi, who never seemed eager to impeach President Trump until the evidence about Ukraine came to light.
Now the impeachment process has moved forward in the House with the introduction of articles of impeachment. No matter what happens with public opinion or the impeachment process itself, I think Pelosi was correct when she said that “this is no cause for any joy” on MSNBC the day after the whistleblower complaint became public. “This a very sad time for our country,” she said. “The impeachment of a president is as serious as our congressional responsibilities can be apart from declaring war. We have to be very prayerful, and we always have to put country before party.”
The Red Letter Christians’ statement in support of the impeachment inquiry put it this way: “While President Trump claims there is an evangelical revival supporting him, we know there is also a revival of people of faith whose commitment to truth remains strong and vigilant. We are Christians who resolutely affirm Jesus’ teachings of justice, love, and equality — echoed in the basic values at the heart of our democracy. This is not a matter of partisanship, but of deepest principle.”
That’s one approach, and it seems far from the religious right’s gripping onto Trump even tighter as impeachment proceeds. In the process, consider where Christians leaders are coming down on impeachment and how they’re deciding. It’s revealing of the different strands of Christianity in the United States today.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is the author of Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, which will be published by Fortress Press next year.