Raleigh, N.C. — Is it a sin to pray for President Donald Trump?
Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP and arguably the loudest voice of protest against North Carolina's Republican power structure, suggested it might be over the weekend during a national television interview that ginned up some GOP anger back home.
MSNBC's Joy Reid asked Barber about a widely shared picture of Trump in the Oval Office, where he is surrounded by pastors laying hands on the president in prayer.
"What do you make of this laying on of hands and this embrace of Donald Trump by the evangelical right, of the Christian right?" Reid asked.
Barber started with a reference to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and their "very, very, very extreme agenda." Then he called the Oval Office prayer session "a form of theological malpractice that borders on heresy."
"When you can p-r-a-y for a president and others while they are p-r-e-y, preying, on the most vulnerable, you are violating the most sacred principles of religion," he said.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes responded with a statement condemning Barber's words "in the strongest possible terms." Barber "cast tens of millions of people, of all faiths, who pray for the president as sinners in a nationally broadcasted interview," Hayes said via email.
The interview made the rounds online after Breitbart excerpted it and The Washington Post followed suit with its own piece.
"Using his role as a supposed faith-based leader to falsely drive citizens away from praying for the good of our nation and our nation's president is absolutely grotesque," Hayes said. "The idea that it is a sin to pray for any individual, much less the commander-in-chief of our country, goes against any religious teaching that I have ever heard of. Rev. Dr. Barber is spreading a repulsive lie, and he should apologize immediately."
Reached by telephone Monday, Barber did not apologize. He said he was speaking only of the clergy who give cover to the president's policies, not of the layman who may offer up an evening prayer for the man in the White House. He ticked off Bible verses that call on the faithful not just to pray, but to act.
"When you pray for leaders without critiquing their policies, and you bless them, you're actually enabling them to be unjust," said Barber, who has been arrested in Raleigh and in Washington, D.C., for his protests and is currently banned from the state Legislative Building.
On Reid's AM Joy program, Barber said some pastors are "acting like priests of the empire rather than prophets of God. He referenced $700 billion in tax cuts contained in the Senate's Affordable care Act repeal bill, calling it the biggest transfer of wealth "on the backs of the bodies of people since the days of slavery."
State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said Barber's interview included at least an implicit condemnation of any prayer for the president. He took North Carolina media to task for giving Barber an massive platform without scrutinizing his often hyperbolic language.
Even if Barber was speaking only about pastors at the White House, "he is still saying that people shouldn't pray with the president ... and that alone is outrageous," Woodhouse said.
For the record, Cherilyn Williams, spokeswoman for the coalition of churches that Barber's Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro belongs to, said she believes Barber's comments were aimed only at "those particular folks who were laying on hands without challenging the president."
"I do understand why it would be misunderstood," she added in a telephone interview Monday.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) includes congregations across a broad theological spectrum, said Williams, the assistant vice president for marketing and communications for the church's office of the general minister and president. Some members will disagree with Barber on this issue, she said, and others will fully support him "even though it's a bit hyperbolic."
Asked whether he has prayed recently for Trump, Barber said he has.
"This was my prayer for President Trump," Barber said. "If I met with him, I would pray for him to become a champion for health care. ... I pray that he would turn. But I can't just pray. Prayer requires that you also protest."
Woodhouse said Republicans prayed for President Barack Obama while he was in the White House, despite his policies.
"And God knows," he said, "we prayed for Bill Clinton."