Let me begin by stating a simple and obvious truth—in a pandemic, it is extraordinarily difficult to guarantee your safety or the safety of those around you. Even careful people can catch the virus. There are essential workers who have done everything right, and they’ve fallen ill. That’s when we use words like “tragic” and sometimes even “heroic” when people face risks for us and soldier on anyway.
But then there are other cases—when people arrogantly defy all that we know about the illness, behave as if the basic rules of epidemiology don’t apply to them, and demand one form of behavior from the public while living an entirely different reality in the places they control. When illness comes, then we use words like “inevitable” to describe the outbreak or “reckless” to describe the behavior.
It’s vital to distinguish between these circumstances, including when evaluating our leaders. The circumstances of how an illness is caught and spread can and should influence how we think and vote. It should even influence how we pray.
As I write this newsletter, President Trump is hospitalized with COVID, and he’s suffering from symptoms of unknown severity. I say “unknown” because his own White House is distributing contradictory information. At a formal press conference, his physician painted a sunny outlook, saying that he was not on oxygen, that he had no longer has a fever, and that Trump was in good spirits. At the same time, he refused to share the temperature of the president’s fever the day before, refused to say whether the president had ever been on oxygen, and provided information that contradicted the official timeline of Trump’s diagnosis.
Moments later, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said, “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning, and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.” (He later provided a different analysis, telling Reuters that the president is doing “very well.”)
Worse still, a steadily increasing number of public officials, including members of Trump’s administration and GOP senators, are reporting positive COVID diagnoses. Again, in a pandemic, these diagnoses are not terribly surprising. Nor should they necessarily trigger public outrage. Until you see this—footage from the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court nomination event at the White House:
As you watch, note that at least two of the unmasked huggers, Sen. Mike Lee and Chris Christie, have both tested positive (Sen. Lee told Guy Benson that he’d tested negative in a rapid test before the event, but there’s evidence the White House was misusing a test known to produce a large percentage of false negatives). As I type, this is the seating chart of positive tests:
I can go on and on describing White House recklessness. As the positive tests multiply to include Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and Republican Party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, we are reminded that not only did Trump himself mock Joe Biden’s cautious approach to masking during the debate, but —according to reports—members of the Trump entourage defied debate rules and refused to wear masks in the debate hall. A “culture of invincibility” allegedly permeated the White House.
And then, finally, as if to remind us that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” the internet unearthed the clip below of Trump cruelly mocking Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia. The date? October 2, 2016—four years to the day before Trump was admitted to the hospital suffering from COVID:
Even as all this was unfolding (as my colleague Jonah Goldberg pointed out in his excellent newsletter yesterday) many of the president’s defenders ignored the administration’s failures and instead went on an online search-and-destroy mission to find and shame public voices who’d expressed satisfaction or even glee at the president’s condition.
It’s as if this terrible moment was just another opportunity to express how bad “the left” is, in spite of the fact that numerous, prominent Trump-critical voices on the left and the right immediately and unreservedly expressed sympathy for the president and said they’d pray for him.
So let’s discuss those prayers. For Christians, praying for national leaders is imperative. No matter your politics, there should be no such thing as schadenfreude and no thought of concepts like karma. As Paul told Timothy, “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” should be made “for all people,” including for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
This sounds all very nice and kind—and it can be immensely reassuring when partisan warriors for a moment lay aside their political weapons to unite in prayer for a president’s health and well-being—but in reality those prayers can and should seek God’s intervention in meaningful and often painful ways. We must pray for justice, for mercy, and—critically—for the humility that leads to repentance.
As votes are being cast in a presidential campaign, American Christians are in a position quite different from Roman-era believers. We have a level of earthly power that our Christian forefathers could scarcely imagine. Our biblical obligation to “act justly” becomes all the more meaningful when we have actual authority to hold our leaders accountable for their misdeeds.
That means seeking and praying for justice in real time, during an election, even when men and women fall ill and need sympathy and care. That means asking God to reveal hidden things, to bring to light wrongdoing that lurks in the shadows. That means asking God to protect America from the actions and influence of unjust men.
But the quest for justice must be tempered by a fervent desire (a love, even) for mercy. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the availability of grace so profound that not one of us receives the justice we so richly deserve.
How many times have each of us done wrong and prayed fervently that we should not suffer the natural and logical consequences of our own foolishness? How many times have we felt immense relief when a gracious and loving God has spared us when our actions cried out for a punishment immensely greater than we received?
And should we not seek that same blessing for others—including when those others may be political enemies who’ve behaved recklessly or maliciously?
It is thus right and good to pray for the speedy healing and quick recovery even of a reckless president. That does not relieve him of political accountability for his actions—or us of the obligation to hold him to account—but we all know what it is like to suffer. We all know what it is like to feel pain. We should pray against his pain.
But here’s where the prayers grow richer and deeper. We shouldn’t simply pray that a president’s trials cease. We can and should also pray that his trials bear fruit—the fruit of humility and repentance. The record of scripture is clear. Times of trial should bring about transformation, and one of the roles of God’s people is to speak truth to convict the powerful of their sin.
The story of the prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David is perhaps the most famous such confrontation in biblical history. David had been caught in his affair and his plot to kill Bathsheba’s husband. In a single powerful scriptural moment you see justice, mercy, and humility come together at once.
David is held to account and told that he will suffer grave consequences for his wrongdoing. Yet he does not receive all the justice he deserves. God spares David’s life and takes away David’s sin. David is filled with sincere sorrow, and Psalm 51—his song of repentance—contains this heartfelt plea: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”
Indeed, God has even reached rulers directly through illness and pain. Daniel 4 contains the memorable story of the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. At the height of his power and might, he was struck down until he repented of his arrogance and acknowledged the power of God. The believer knows that the most prideful human heart isn’t beyond the reach of redemptive grace.
Note that none of this is partisan. Republican Christians should seek justice when even the men and women they vote for act recklessly. Democratic Christians should love mercy even when an aggressive political opponent has shown no similar consideration in return. And Christians of all political persuasions should humbly (and with full knowledge of our own frailty) seek true repentance from men and women in power. Their transformation benefits us all.
However, if political pride prevails even when mercy abounds, the need for accountability becomes clear. Believers must pray for President Trump’s speedy recovery, but justice may still demand his resounding defeat.
One last thing…
I’m going to indulge in a Sunday French Press first, a repeat song. There are times when I honestly wonder how much more we can take—how much more disease, how much more economic uncertainty, how much more conflict, and how much more chaos. But, still, it is well with our souls. And this modern adaptation/variation of one of the most powerful of all Christian hymns (written in the aftermath of dark tragedy) is worth hearing and believing:
Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.