After telling attendees of the Republican National Convention that “Our enemy is not other Republicans but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party,” a South Carolina pastor offered the most explicitly partisan prayer heard at a major party convention in modern times.
Pastor Mark Burns, a prosperity preacher and televangelist from Easley, S.C., was invited by the Trump campaign to deliver the Monday benediction that concluded the contentious daytime proceedings on the first day of the RNC in Cleveland. “We are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ,” Burns told delegates, before closing his eyes in prayer.
The benediction itself, which included Burns’ praise to God for “giving [Trump] the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party,” was immediately denounced on Twitter by liberal and conservative Christians who called it “blasphemous” and “idolatrous.”
Yes, DNC endorses violations of “Thou shalt not murder.”
But RNC just took God’s name in vain *from the stage* y'all https://t.co/YZTfRjn4Km
— Ted Olsen (@tedolsen) July 18, 2016
Weaponization of Jesus’ name. A violation of the Third Commandment. https://t.co/qMIhUw9JhO
— Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (@TylerWS) July 18, 2016
Paul:For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood
(Some)21st century Americans: our enemy is H. Clinton &dem. Party https://t.co/zTupb3GyuT
— Tripp Gordon (@tgordon8) July 18, 2016
— John Moody (@thatmoodyguy) July 18, 2016
Shortly after Burns left the stage in Cleveland, the Interfaith Alliance issued a statement calling his benediction “inappropriate” and declaring that “invoking religion to launch such attacks devalues faith.”
That the Republican National Convention might feature a religious leader who calls on God to give a Republican candidate “the power and authority to be the next president of the United States of America” may not surprise many who have followed the role of the religious right in American politics over the past few decades. But while some pastors have sometimes offered such prayers within their own churches and communities, party conventions have largely featured religious leaders who make an effort to keep their language nonpartisan.
Even in 1968, when the evangelist Billy Graham publicly supported Richard Nixon’s candidacy, he prayed at both the Democratic National Convention as well as the Republican gathering. In 2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan delivered prayers at both party conventions and used the opportunities to tweak both parties over their differences with Catholic teaching. In his benediction at the RNC, Dolan included a pro-immigration line, praying that God would bless “those families that have come recently, to build a better future.” Likewise, at the DNC, the cardinal underscored his church’s opposition to abortion: “We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected.”
Prayer has had a place at U.S. political conventions as far back as records extend. In the early 19th century, some Democratic conventions even took place in churches. But there is no precedent for a religious leader at any convention describing political opponents as “enemies.” Indeed, one of the most famous passages from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks to his followers about enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The Trump campaign may not have known what it could expect from Mark Burns, a small-town pastor who had no national profile until he emerged last fall as one of a group of black pastors who met with Trump to consider lending the Republican candidate their support.
But then again, his religious worldview could be exactly what the presumptive GOP nominee is looking for. When Trump was asked by a radio talk show host in the spring to name his favorite Bible verse, he cited “An eye for an eye [and a tooth for a tooth.]” As it happens, Jesus had something to say about that as well:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”