There have been a lot of low points in the discussion about the coronavirus pandemic in the last few weeks. The Trump administration has supplied some of them as the president spoke about the issue at times with his characteristic lack of caution and obsessive need to counter-attack against political foes. Fortunately, in the last week as the seriousness of the crisis has become apparent, his tone has changed. Indeed, he has started to sound and act more like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has gotten high marks for his serious and effective response to the virus.
But among the most discouraging moments during the emergency was the reaction to a widely shared photo that showed Vice President Mike Pence and the coronavirus taskforce that he was charged with leading bowed in prayer before the start of one of their meetings. The response from many on the left was to pour scorn on Pence and to use it as an excuse to bash the administration. The reaction was summed up by a New York Times Magazine writer, whose tweet about the photo implied that America was “screwed” since its leaders were trying to pray their way out of a problem for which they were unprepared.
The same thing happened this past Sunday, when the president’s declaration of a National Day of Prayer in response to the pandemic also generated a sadly predictable wave of abuse. Others were repulsed by the appeal to prayer because they thought it an insult to atheists or merely a case of the irreligious Trump pandering to the Christian right.
Trump has certainly helped coarsen our public discourse, though at this point the same can be said of many of his critics. It’s also true that both he and Pence are fair game for criticism. But at what point do even the fiercest of partisans stop trying to “own” their opponents on social media and start understanding that there are some things that transcend politics?
If there is anything that ought to be sobering up the Twittersphere, it is coronavirus pandemic. And if there was ever a moment when the country and its leaders needed to harness the power of prayer, it is now.
Those who say that the president’s invocation to faith runs contrary to the spirit of the Constitution simply don’t know American history. There is a long tradition of presidents responding to crises by calling the country to prayer. That was true of Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863, during one of the low points of the Civil War for the Union, declared a national Day of Fasting and Prayer. As with his Second Inaugural Address, which spoke of the war as a Divine punishment for the sin of slavery, Lincoln called upon Americans to “humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”
On June 6, 1944 as Allied troops were struggling to establish a foothold on the continent of Europe against Nazi tyranny, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to the radio to call upon Americans to join him in prayer at a moment of decision in the great struggle to save Western civilization: “O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled.”
Even Barack Obama was, like Pence, not averse to beginning meetings with prayers.
Neither Trump nor Pence are the equals of Lincoln and FDR when it comes to rallying the nation behind a cause. But their efforts to encourage prayer in response to this terrible challenge should not be disparaged.
More importantly, it is incumbent on people of faith and even those who lack it to realize that what the country needs most at this is the sort of awakening that can heal it spiritually, as well as physically.
While the Twittersphere remains resolutely partisan and vicious, there have been signs that members of Congress are, at least for the moment, trying to reach across the aisle. The country needs them, and the White House to put aside their differences to deal with the pandemic.
But sensible people know there is more that is wrong with America today than just this disease and its impact on the economy. For years, the country has been fighting a new civil war with each side blaming one another not only for the nation’s problems, but also for the abyss of anger into which we have collectively spiraled. Too many of us think the only solution to everything is political—i.e., defeat Trump or re-elect him—as part of an apocalyptic battle between adherents of darkness and light.
At a time when politics has replaced religion in the lives of many Americans, it is, perhaps, understandable that this is how we would conduct our political discourse. But the virus has provided us with one of those rare moments in history when business as usual suddenly no longer seems defensible.
The coronavirus will be stopped by science, coupled with effective action by the government and individuals behaving in a responsible fashion. While we may not be able to pray our way out of this predicament, Americans should embrace the opportunity to put our partisan leanings aside and ask for help. Doing so is not an appeal to sectarianism, but to humility and unity. It is a chance for us to recognize even political foes as friends and neighbors, and as fellow sufferers who deserve our help and caring. And coming to this conclusion is as much a part of Jewish tradition as it is of mainstream American values.
It doesn’t matter what you think of the president or his avowedly religious vice president. It’s time to stop criticizing public non-coercive prayer and joining in it—both for our own sake and those now in need.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.