October 14th, 2011
09:04 AM ET
By Dave Schechter, CNN
“As I campaign for president, I not only ask you for your vote and your support, I ask for your prayers. I ask you to pray for our country. I ask you to pray for our president to give him wisdom, to open his eyes,” the Texas Governor told an audience in Florida last month.
Doing just that is the stated mission of the Presidential Prayer Team.
Conceived in November 2000 in an adult Sunday school class in Scottsdale, Arizona, the PPT – or “The Prayer Team,” as it calls itself – takes its charge from the words of the Apostle Paul to his disciple Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
“We believe prayer is the most important power in this entire world,” PPT president Jim Bolthouse tells CNN. The idea is simple: prayer moves God and God moves the leaders.
PPT members are charged to pray for their leaders, even if they don’t care for the individual or disagree with their policies. “We don’t necessarily agree with everything our President is doing, but that doesn’t stop us from praying for our President. That is a mandate,” Bolthouse says.
The PPT is a Christian enterprise. Prayers are offered “in Jesus’ name,” but Bolthouse notes that calls to pray for leaders can be found in the Old and New Testaments. Because of the range of beliefs within Christianity, the PPT tries to avoid denominational conflicts.
The original goal was to persuade one percent of the American population (at the time, roughly 2.8 million people) to pray for the president. The campaign was set to launch in November 2001 but the date was pushed up after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In March 2009 the PPT claimed 1.7 million members worldwide.
The $30,000 a month it costs to finance the PPT comes from individual donations. There is no charge to be a member; in fact, fewer than 1 percent of PPT members make a financial contribution, though there are 1,000-2,000 people who donate on average $45-55 monthly, Bolthouse says. These donors, he says, are people who “see the value in what prayer means for our country.” Finances are among the subjects discussed when the small staff gathers for its regular Monday morning prayers.
Most of the communication with members is by e-mail. A daily devotional is sent to some 38,000 members who have signed up for that service. The major weekly e-mail, covering a variety of topics, goes to about 580,000 people. E-mails include suggestions on topics worthy of prayer, “as the Lord moves you,” Bolthouse says.
Since its founding, the PPT has expanded its scope with prayers for Cabinet secretaries, congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices, the U.S. armed forces and even the first lady, Michele Obama. Suggestions are made for prayers on topics in the news, including the economy, relations between Israel and the Palestinians and the health care reform law advocated by the Obama administration.
“We’re taking a much more far-reaching stand in praying for our country, beyond just praying for our President,” Bolthouse says.
The PPT can be timely in its call for prayers. The January shootings in Tucson, Arizona, in which six people were killed and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was one of 19 people wounded, happened just eight miles from PPT’s offices. Bolthouse says that the website began offering prayers – not only for those shot, but also for the emergency response and medical personnel involved – within 30 minutes of the incident, even before much of the news media had reported the news.
As for President Obama, Bolthouse says that it has taken effort to convince some PPT members that it is proper to pray for the current president, given their opposition to his policies, some of which he says are “in conflict with biblical principles.” Gay rights and abortion are two such issues, Bolthouse says, explaining, “These are not gray areas in the Scriptures,” he says.
PPT members are “asking God more for his divine intervention in Mr. Obama’s life than in Mr. Bush’s,” Bolthouse says, referring to President George W. Bush.
Bolthouse admits to being personally “cautious” when it comes to the President’s own assertions that he is a Christian, but Scriptures he says, counsel against passing judgment.
President Obama discussed the role of prayer in public policy debates when he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2010.
“Surely we can agree to find common ground when possible, parting ways when necessary,” he said. “But in doing so, let us be guided by our faith, and by prayer. For while prayer can buck us up when we are down, keep us calm in a storm; while prayer can stiffen our spines to surmount an obstacle – and I assure you I’m praying a lot these days – prayer can also do something else. It can touch our hearts with humility. It can fill us with a spirit of brotherhood. It can remind us that each of are children of a awesome and loving God.”
Obama has reaffirmed his Christian faith many times, including in a January 2008 interview with Christianity Today.“I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian,” he said. “I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful.
A poll conducted in July-August 2010 for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press offered evidence of the public confusion about the President’s religion. In the survey of more than 3,000 adult Americans, 18 percent identified the President as a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. About one-third (34 percent) said he is a Christian, down from 48 percent the year earlier. Forty-three percent said they did not know.
As for those who would like to succeed President Obama in the Oval Office, when the PPT website posted a column about the Republicans seeking the presidential nomination, the comments that followed included discussion – and warnings – about the degree to which individual candidates are worthy of being called Christian. That Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons is just one aspect of that debate.
The PPT website features a prayer wall on which participants offer prayers on a variety of subjects, sometimes on topics known to spark arguments and debate, such as same-sex marriage and the military’s recently-rescinded “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulations. There also is a page dedicated to “Morality in America.”
And coming in November from the PPT, one year before the 2012 elections, will be “Pray the Vote,” a project to provide to prayers for candidates at all levels, from the office of President to state legislators. The site will analyze where candidates stand on 10 “value points” identified by PPT members as being of particular interest.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.