Evangelicals Aren’t Just Praying for Trump — They’re Commissioning Him
LAST APRIL, I wrote about a photo of an evangelical pastor praying for then-candidate Donald Trump at a church in Council Bluffs, Iowa (above). Jae C. Hong’s picture of Pastor Joshua Nink laying hands on DJT Trump at the First Christian Church became the go-to for photo editors who needed art to accompany just about any Trump+Religion story in 2016.
Trump was aggressively (and often clumsily) courting evangelicals at the time, and the laying on of hands appeared to be a clear visual indicator of their blessing. But I spoke with the Iowa pastor in the prayer photo, and I learned that this wasn’t actually the case. Reading The Pictures explains:
(Pastor) Nink’s prayer for wisdom was more out of concern for an influential figure than an endorsement. It was actually a pretty generic prayer for an evangelical over a politician; it’s the same kind of prayer he might have said over Hillary Clinton.
The Nink photo is still a good illustration of Trump’s own relationship to evangelicals, if only because of his and Melania’s visible discomfort with the situation. Nink was not asking God to give Trump success in everything he would do, but was instead asking God to guide Trump, hopeful that he would get the necessary guidance to do the right thing. And that was indeed the attitude of many evangelicals at the time: cautious optimism. Maybe he’s changed. Maybe he got saved. Maybe Rubio will win and we won’t have to worry about any of this.
No longer. Trump won 81% of the white evangelical vote (votes among those who described themselves as either “evangelical” or “born-again;” a fairly broad criteria). This changes how we should interpret current and future photos depicting the laying on of hands, like this recent snapshot captured during a group prayer meeting of evangelicals with Trump:
It’s unfortunate that most link previews for this image won’t be able to account for the photo’s cinematic vertical landscape aspect ratio (16:9 instead of the usual 5:7), which creates a dramatic effect when scrolling from top to bottom. The image is a journey: from the iconic Oval Office crown molding, to the quietly impassioned expressions of men blocking (perhaps symbolically) the lens of White House photographer Shealah Craighead, descending through the famed wave of hair to a pair of hands made huge by proximity and lens distortion, each sporting monumental gold and jeweled rings.
It’s not surprising that this dramatic photograph does not come from a professional photojournalist but from Johnnie Moore, an evangelical marketing and communications executive and member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. Moore is clearly visually literate, and he uses this moment to capture what for him was a sacred event, one in which he felt honored to be in the presence of a giant for the faith. Moore has attended prayer meetings with President Obama in the past, but as he told CNN, this one was different:
"We similarly prayed for President Obama but it's different with President Trump," Moore said. "When we are praying for President Trump, we are praying within the context of a real relationship, of true friendship."
This photo does not depict a pained plea for God to intervene in someone’s life, to change them or reform them. This photo depicts a commissioning — the kind of prayer evangelicals offer for missionaries before they go to witness in another country. Here are a few examples of commissioning ceremonies from church websites:
While the laying on of hands is not unique to evangelicalism, the ritual plays an important role in evangelical history as a means of designating new leaders and of blessing departing missionaries. Evangelicals see the laying on of hands as a symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit empowering the person to do the work of ministry, and a replication of Jesus’ own commission to the Apostles to spread the gospel message to the world. While evangelicals don’t expect Trump to be sharing the Four Spiritual Laws during diplomatic tours, the implication is that the person receiving the blessing is doing God’s work, and that they have the full support of the community offering the blessing.
It is through these ceremonies that church communities express their total approval of the individuals being sent as ambassadors for God’s Kingdom. These are not prayers of healing or conversion— although those may also include the laying on of hands. They are prayers of explicit blessing and endorsement. Obviously these blessings can be taken back, so to speak, if Trump were to do something that evangelicals found truly reprehensible. But the fact that this specific group did not withhold that blessing in this instance implies that they do not believe his administration has yet done anything to lose their favor.
This is the kind of prayer Moore is offering in his epic vertical snapshot. It is also the kind of prayer black churches offered for Obama during his presidential candidacy:
While it’s important to be careful when interpreting visual signals in photographs — especially when it comes to faith — a surface reading of this photo is enough to understand it as an obvious endorsement from a specific community. They may be praying for God to guide Obama’s decisions and to make him a better person, but they know who they are voting for. The same is true with the White House laying on of hands. With less and less nuance in the relationship between Trump and white evangelicals (about 19%, to be exact), there is now less risk of reading too little into photos like Moore’s for what they are: commissioning ceremonies.