McLean Bible Church’s main campus in Vienna, Virginia, is a 17-minute drive from the Trump National Golf Club, where President Donald Trump spent Sunday morning. Deep into the church’s 1 p.m. service, after pastor David Platt had delivered his sermon, Platt was summoned backstage and told that Trump was on his way and wanted the church to pray for him. In a letter to his congregation published later in the day, Platt explained that he went back out to lead the church’s Communion service, then returned to wait for the president.
When Platt walked back onstage, the president was behind him, dressed as if he’d strolled straight off the golf course. “We have a unique opportunity today,” Platt told the congregation. “I want to ask us to bow our heads together now and pray for our president.” Trump had pulled off his white golf hat as he walked onstage and held it in his hands as Platt placed his hand on Trump’s back and prayed for almost three full minutes.
In contrast with other pastors who have prayed for Trump, Platt was scrupulously nonpartisan. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, once thanked God at a campaign event for Trump’s willingness to “make America great again.” Platt prayed that God would give Trump wisdom, and that the president would trust God. He did not betray any hints as to whether he believes Trump currently possesses wisdom or currently trusts God. “We pray … that he would govern and make decisions in ways that are good for justice, and good for righteousness, and good for equity, every good path,” Platt said, lifting up his Bible and bowing his head. “We pray that you would give him all the grace he needs to govern in ways … that lead to peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way.”
The White House told reporters that Trump made the appearance at the church to “pray for the victims and community of Virginia Beach.” But that topic did not come up during his brief time at the church, which is more than three hours north of the site of Friday’s mass shooting. The real lure for him, it seems likely, was that evangelist Franklin Graham, a strong Trump supporter, had designated Sunday a “Day of Prayer” for Trump: “If his enemies are allowed to destroy him and pull down the presidency, it will hurt our entire nation,” Graham said in announcing his plans. Trump approved. “We will all stick together and WIN!” he tweeted Saturday in response to Graham’s announcement. “Thank you Franklin.”
Platt alluded to Graham’s day of prayer in introducing the president. But he had not publicly signed on to participate in the day, and his prayer did not conform to its nationalistic spirit. If Trump wanted to make an appearance with a pastor who would lavish him with praise and edge up to endorsing him, 40-year-old Platt was an odd choice. As an author, Platt is best known for the 2010 book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream, which, if not exactly radical by most standards, does question the materialism of mainstream American culture. “I wonder if followers of Christ 150 years from now will look back at Christians in America today and ask, ‘How could they live in such big houses? How could they drive such nice cars and wear such nice clothes?’ ” he wrote. “How could they go on with their lives as though the billions of poor didn’t even exist?” David Brooks wrote approvingly of the book in 2010, identifying Platt as a key figure in the cultural recalibration away from wealth-obsessed pre-Recession values—what we might now call “Trump values.” Last year, Platt preached about the perils of nationalism on Fourth of July weekend.
Politically, Platt’s entire ministry has been as assiduously nonpartisan as his prayer on Sunday was. Former White House staffer Cliff Sims wrote in Team of Vipers, his recent book about his tenure in the Trump administration, that Sims had wanted to invite Platt to deliver the keynote speech at a White House prayer breakfast. According to Sims, pastor Paula White, a Trump ally, rejected the suggestion because Platt “believes the American dream is evil.” Sims later told Christianity Today that Platt himself had felt conflicted too because of the baggage that comes with being seen as a political pastor.
As critics pointed out, Platt may not have praised Trump this past weekend, but he did invite him onstage. “The prayer was very nonpartisan and very inclusive, but at the same time, there’s an image of this pastor with a positive expression on his face laying a hand on Donald Trump and the other hand holding up a Bible, and Trump has his head bowed,” Dan Nejfelt, who works for a national network of progressive faith leaders, told me. “That image conveys Trump is a Christian and a normal leader that Christians can get behind.” Photographs of Platt praying for Trump have already been used to illustrated approving coverage by Breitbart, the Christian Post, and the Christian Broadcasting Network, among others.
In his letter to parishioners, Platt wrote that his “aim was in no way to endorse the president, his policies, or his party.” Referring to a New Testament passage about the importance of praying for everyone, including “kings and all who are in high positions,” Platt wrote about his struggle:
I know that some within our church, for a variety of valid reasons, are hurt that I made this decision. This weighs heavy on my heart. I love every member of this church, and I only want to lead us with God’s Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God. … I’m guessing that all of us will face other decisions this week where we don’t have time to deliberate on what to do. I’m praying now for grace and wisdom for all of us to do exactly what we talked about in the Word today: aim for God’s glory, align with God’s purpose, and yield to God’s sovereignty.
By all appearances, Platt made an earnest, even sophisticated, attempt to avoid becoming Trump’s minion onstage on Sunday. (A representative of McLean Bible Church did not respond to multiple interview requests.) But declining to mention politics is itself a political act. And public prayer consists of much more than the text of its message. After Platt concluded his prayer for Trump on Sunday, video captured the congregation bursting into sustained applause and hoots of approval so enthusiastic that Trump seemed to linger onstage to enjoy it. It’s not clear that everyone at the church participated, or what exactly the applause meant; members of the musical ensemble looked unenthusiastic, for what it’s worth. Platt shook the president’s hand after the prayer but did not clap for him. He tried, impossibly, to have it both ways: to be on the stage with Trump, and also rise above it.