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Let’s Pray for National and World Resistance to Evil

 

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate! …
In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, — are all with thee!

“The Building of the Ship,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
 
The Library of Congress has a facsimile copy of a letter written by Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill in January 1941. Roosevelt had just been inaugurated for his third term and the letter was delivered by Wendell Willkie, the Republican opponent who had lost in November 1940. The letter consisted mostly of a quotation of the first four lines of the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem “The Building of the Ship.” Roosevelt said, “I think this verse applies to you people as it does to us.”

Today, Roosevelt’s selection needs to include the last seven lines of that stanza as well. Our nation, and in fact the “free world,” are “hanging breathless” amidst a storm not seen since the end of the Cold War—and success is being threatened because there are organized political efforts to undermine internal support. It may no longer be true that “Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears … are all with thee!”

A ship on the ocean and a captain at the helm has traditionally captured the image of our successful nation. Storms and a variety of sudden and unpredictable dangers are inevitable and unavoidable. Our hope is that a captain in command has the ability, confidence, and humility to guide the ship through all dangers. Also, the captain must command a sturdy vessel and rely on officers and sailors to do their duty when called on.

This vision of a president was the rule when I grew up in the 1950s and both parties came together to support policies to promote democracy at home and abroad. We resisted authoritarian states as we made sacrifices necessary to resist aggression without leading to a third world war. The Baptist churches I attended prayed for the nation and president as a matter of routine—not as a political endorsement, but as support for the captain of our ship of state as it plowed through heavy seas.

Today the international order that emerged under American guidance after World War II, and that was victorious in the Cold War, is on the verge of collapse. Russia and China are using their role in the international economy to bring down democratic governments that have supported human rights and depended on elections free of foreign interference and internal sabotage. President Biden has surprised our adversaries by galvanizing NATO into solidarity, despite the energy extortion of Russia and its OPEC authoritarian friends. The open brutality of Russia in Ukraine, which follows decades of similar military slaughter of Syrians and other neighbors, and the flagrant brutality of China to its Uighur minority have shown the world their penchant for slaughter on the scale practiced by Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Why are the forces of authoritarian evil so confident they will bring down NATO and democracies in general? We have elections and they don’t. They don’t worry about public opinion over ways of fighting the pandemic, or about inflation, or the price of gas. They also don’t allow public media to distribute information or opinions that are unapproved by the government. The presidential election of 2020 was a defeat for the American allies of Putin and the OPEC authoritarian leaders—but they are confident that American public opinion will bring them back into power in 2022, or 2024, or 2026 because of anger over wearing masks, or taking vaccinations, or inflation in a growing economy, or gas prices, or problems with supply chains, or other momentary complaints.

Even worse is the fact that evangelical churches in the vein of the Baptist churches I knew in my childhood refuse to pray for our president or nation because they don’t like the party in power. People who call themselves evangelical or conservative Christians are sporting bumper stickers with insults and hate messages for a president they voted against. They also are repeating demonstrable lies about a stolen presidential election—and expressing support for people who tried to overthrow our constitutional process for peaceful transition of power.

My view is that every Christian, every secular or spiritual supporter of democracy and human rights, MUST pray for guidance and then vote to preserve those values in our country and the world.

What good does prayer do in this situation? It certainly does not guarantee that we will receive specific requests that are made. In fact, asking for specific election results, or cheaper gas prices, or similar  particulars is an abuse of prayer. We need prayer that puts our minds and emotions in touch with deep values and focuses on things of lasting rather than momentary concern. Our prayer should ask for strength and wisdom as we try to overcome a deadly pandemic — and the ongoing gun violence undermining public safety while in school, in church, out shopping, or at the doctor’s office. Our prayer should acknowledge the power of evil at large in our society as hatred vitiates the bonds that make us functional and makes us increasingly vulnerable to enemies who proudly enlist any form of dishonesty or violence to win at all costs. Finally, our prayer should ask guidance for our president, cabinet, and congressional leaders—and for bonds of loyalty that lead them to dedicate themselves to national interests more than party interests.

As always, the dangers besetting our nation and world are too complex to be overcome with simplistic answers. As citizens and voters, we must look past wholehearted dedication to pet issues. We must take principled actions based on balanced commitment to our deepest and most essential values. Our leaders must be people who bring skill, the wisdom of experience, and deep humility to facing the powerful storms that are upon us. When we are blest to have a president with those character traits, as is the case at this time, we should pray ever more earnestly for his or her success for the sake of our nation and the world—even if we are confident we would never vote for him or her in the future.

Wisdom, ability, and moral righteousness are not guarantees of success. The captain of our ship must evaluate the present crises and keep making adjustments to preserve the ship and its crew through increasingly complex and dangerous storms. The captain of the Titanic stands as an example of someone with exemplary qualifications and good motives who, nevertheless, was responsible for one of the worst catastrophes in maritime history. Being a captain—or president—at any time is perilous.

As passengers and voting crew members on the American ship of state, we must recognize that we are sailing among icebergs more dangerous than those encountered by the Titanic. We must wake up, recognize the extent of the danger, get our values straight, and do our part when it comes time to vote. Meanwhile, we must pray for the captain of our ship who has reinvigorated NATO—pray that somehow he guides us through dangers and galvanizes the courage and wisdom of the officers and crew of our ship, the United States of America.
 
 Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and veteran Sunday School teacher in Presbyterian Churches. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider. His latest book is Values, Truth, and Spiritual Danger: Progressive Christianity in the Age of Trump. Dr. Simmons is an energetic speaker for education, religious, and civic groups of all ages. He may be contacted at the following email address: egsimmons6@gmail.com.

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