President Trump, in his letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Tuesday, said he doesn’t believe that she prays for him. The president seems certain you cannot pray for opponents. As Pelosi’s fellow Catholic, I know Saint Paul (in I Thessalonians 5:16) said we must pray for them continually, “without letting up.” Jesus (in Matthew 5:44) said you should pray for your enemies especially: “Love your foes, and pray for those who oppress you.”
Jesus was a model of tolerance and love. In fact, he seemed to prefer the company of outsiders, and even of the disreputable. His critics accused him of eating with sinners — by which they meant tax collectors, who were despised as collaborators with the Roman imperial bureaucracy. He answered, “I have not come to summon the perfect but to summon sinners.”
Pelosi, too, seems to like outsiders, including two of her friends and former colleagues in the House, Robert Drinan and Barney Frank, both of Massachusetts. Father Drinan was a double outsider, first as a Jesuit in the House, and then as a representative who had to quit his congressional seat after Pope John Paul II banned American priests from serving in elected office. Frank, who succeeded Drinan in the Fourth Congressional District, was an outsider as one of the first openly gay men to hold elected office. Pelosi delivered the eulogy at Father Drinan’s funeral, telling the mourners that God worked in mysterious but wonderful ways in Massachusetts, as when the pope cleared the congressional seat so Frank could immediately fill it.
Trump does not understand such mysterious goings-on. He has tweeted that Pelosi “says she prays for the president, I don’t believe her, not even close.” Of course he doesn’t. His experience of prayer seems limited. He says he is a Presbyterian who gets to church “as often as possible” — and when on a golf-less Sunday, he does attend, “I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker . . . I feel cleansed.” That sounds, I admit, somewhat edifying. It reminds me of Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper, where Jesus gestures to the little crackers he wants his followers to have.
But one wonders how familiar Trump is with the crackers when they are not on Leonardo’s painted table. When the communion tray was passed around at a church in Iowa during the 2016 presidential campaign, Melania Trump ate her cracker, but Trump thought it was the collection plate and tried to put money in it.
Of course, the president appreciates his support from evangelical leaders. He has them visit him in the White House and goes to rallies held for him by men like Billy Graham’s son Franklin. In fact, last summer, he heard on the golf course that Franklin Graham had called on pastors to have a day of prayer for the president in his time of persecution. He decided to go straight to the nearest evangelical mega-church. His staff put out a quick announcement that he was going to pray for victims of the mass shooting that had occurred a week before in nearby Virginia Beach.
We know from pictures that he made it there just before communion. But he did not stay for the crackers. Nor did he pray for those slain in Virginia Beach. In fact, he did not say a word. He simply stood in his golf clothes onstage with the pastor.
What would he have prayed for if he had been praying? He has been asked several times if he asks God for forgiveness of his sins. He told Republican pollster Frank Luntz before a group of Christian leaders: “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” Asked the same question later, he said the same thing: “I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good.” Trump does not need God. He has himself. God is for losers, and he is a winner.
Which brings me back to that time when the critics of Jesus found him dining with the taxmen-collaborators. Jesus answered them in a parable, of a winning Pharisee (self-righteous religious leader) and a losing Roman “collaborator” praying in the Temple. Jesus said, in the Gospel of Luke (18:11-14):
“The Pharisee, drawing himself up, prayed this way: ‘I thank you, O God, that I am not like any of this rabble (hoi polloi), sinners all . . . or like the collaborator over there. I fast twice on the sabbath and pay all the tithes I owe.’ The collaborator, however, keeping himself inconspicuous, did not lift his eyes on high but struck his breast, and said: ‘Have mercy, O God, on me the sinner.’ I assure you this man went home more pleasing to God than the other. For anyone who lifts himself up will be brought down, and anyone who brings himself down will be lifted up.”
The Christian church is a club with an odd credential for membership. You must be a sinner. We are a company of losers. This poor guy, Trump, has not found the secret of this entry qualification. That just means that we Christian sinners must, with Saint Paul and Pelosi, pray for him “without letting up.”
Garry Wills, a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, is the author of “The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis.’’