“Mr. President, we’re going to be your most loyal friends,” Jeffress said then.
That prediction was accurate. At some of Trump’s lowest moments over the past few months, conservative religious leaders have materialized at the White House to literally lay hands on him in prayer.
The photos of these moments have a powerful resonance for many American Christians who are steeped in a fundamentalist form of the faith that is individualistic, populist and places a high value on outward forms of religiosity. Their faith practice is characterized by a fascination with emotional experience and with big, dramatic gestures and story lines. The extraordinary is often valued over the ordinary, novelty over tradition, speaking in tongues over creeds, prophecy over liturgy.
And Trump, who spoke Friday at a gathering of religious conservatives in Washington, D.C., called the Values Voters Summit, has been eager to harness that emotional energy on his own behalf, especially at low points in his presidency.
When the damaging news broke in July that Donald Trump Jr. had met during the campaign with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and had been eager to receive information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, a group of evangelicals prayed over Trump that very evening in the Oval Office.
“Such an honor to pray within the Oval Office for @POTUS & @VP,” tweeted Johnnie Moore, a former aide to Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.
Moore now runs a public relations and advocacy business and is a major player at the intersection of conservative evangelical Christianity, politics and entertainment. But when it comes to convening these groups of leaders, it is Jeffress; Paula White, a Florida prosperity mega-church pastor who’s been called “a heretic” by other Christian leaders; and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, who take the lead, according to people who are familiar with the inner workings of the group.
Moore attached to his tweet a photo shot from behind Trump that showed six or seven hands on the president’s back, a common gesture among evangelicals during prayer for another person. Many believe the laying on of hands channels spiritual power to the person being prayed for.
“The laying on of hands in the Old Testament signified transfer (of sins to the scapegoat, for instance) and of the Holy Spirit from one person to another (anointing),” Michael Horton, a prominent evangelical author and a professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, wrote in an email. “Jesus sometimes healed in analogous ways, placing his hands on people, but not necessarily. The apostles laid hands on some people for healing as well. So the idea is biblical.”
But, Horton cautioned, “what people are doing with it today is closer to magic, it seems to me.”
Harry Jackson, a Pentecostal pastor from the Maryland suburbs outside D.C. who was one of the ministers who prayed for Trump in the Oval Office, said that “if people don’t understand the faith dimension involved, they would say that it’s superstitious.”
“We believe there is a transfer — a potential transfer — of spiritual power and the Holy Spirit’s influence to a willing and believing recipient,” Jackson said in an interview. “The recipient has got to be in a place where his faith and his character can allow God to impart grace to him. … If there was true humility on the part of the president, God can give him these bursts and downloads of wisdom.”
“And the question is, if you don’t stay in that humble place, you can have bursts of wisdom but not wisdom in another moment,” Jackson added. “We understand the president is really by nature a fighter and protector, but the role America needs now is more of a father and a healer as well.”
The ministers who visited with Trump that day didn’t just pray for him. Some also took up his cause of criticizing the media and encouraged their followers to disregard press reports, which that day would have been about Trump Jr.’s meetings with Russians during the campaign.