Trump's Faith-Based Pivot: Anti-Viral Rx Would Be God's 'Gift'
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made two contradictory claims: While professing to be a Christian, he said he had little time for prayer. This disinterest in a core activity of the faithful apparently hasn’t survived the lonely job of being president. More precisely, Trump’s indifference to prayer hasn’t withstood the pressures of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump is now urging his fellow Americans to make heavenly petitions.
He has weathered a special prosecutor and allegations of collusion with a foreign power and impeachment by Congress. He now faces an illness he calls “the invisible enemy.” A pathogen, not any partisan opponent, now threatens his political career. He can’t belittle the virus or mock it or neutralize it with a tweet. And so, during a Saturday briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the president asked for prayers.
Early science suggests that an anti-malaria drug called chloroquine, when paired with the antibiotic azithromycin, could combat the virus. The cocktail has not gone through the types of Food and Drug Administration trials necessary to clear it for use. But Trump, sans FDA testing, has trumpeted it as a potential cure. The president tweeted that the two drugs, mixed together, “have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”
The media didn’t have as much faith. The doubting Thomases of the White House press corps did their job by questioning the president on whether it was prudent to push an untested drug cocktail on the public. Half of his answer was Pascal’s wager: “What do we have to lose?” The other half was a petition for divine mercy: “This would be a gift from heaven, this would be a gift from God if it works. So, we’re going to pray from God that it does work.”
His scientific adviser then stepped in to say that matters of faith and hoped-for conclusions of science are not that different.
Answers to prayer, said the Jesuit-educated Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are “anecdotal.” But that was not reason enough to dismiss what the president was saying. “The president is talking about hope for people and it’s not an unreasonable thing to hope for people,” Fauci continued. “My job as a scientist is to ultimately prove without a doubt that a drug is not only safe but that it works.”
As science goes through its method, the president has asked the country to seek divine intervention.
“Let us pray that all those affected by the virus will feel the presence of our Lord’s protection and love during this time,” Trump said in a presidential proclamation, designating March 14 a day of prayer. “With God’s help, we will overcome this threat.”
To be fair, it is a sentiment other presidents have invoked through the centuries. But if it’s not out of the ordinary historically, it certainly is a departure for Trump. Maybe God hears prayers, but before he was president, Trump wasn’t offering them.
“I have great relationship with God. I have great relationship with the evangelicals,” he said when competing for the Oval Office. “I like to be good. I don't like to have to ask for forgiveness,” he said during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And I am good. I don't do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.”
But has he ever asked God for forgiveness? Trump told Republican pollster Frank Luntz that he didn’t know.
"I am not sure I have," he said. "I just go on and try to do a better job from there. … 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."
As discordant as his recent invocations of the almighty may seem coming from a leader who dresses down reporters asking about the pandemic while excoriating China for initially covering it up, such language is familiar ground for the vice president. Mike Pence has been derided and dismissed for his religious faith. Now he leads the task force responding to the virus. Pence has decided to lead that group in prayer each time they meet. For now, Trump, the big, brash former playboy from Queens, welcomes their heavenly petitions.