Are we praying for the wrong people? In a word: yes.

We hear this segment of a prayer all the time: Someone will have asked us to bow our heads and join them in praying, and at some point – particularly at church or a political gathering – will come the inevitable, “…And we pray for our leaders” followed by a list of names or public offices.

The particularly pious, hoping to evoke a sense of biblical weight, will prayerfully refer to the president, governor, or mayor as our “rulers.”

It reminds me just how ignorant we have become in our republic, just how far we have devolved in our understanding of how government is supposed to work. We don’t elect “rulers” and “leaders,” we elect servants.

So let me say it again: Every time you hear someone pray for our nation’s “rulers” and “leaders” to have wisdom in addressing the issues of the day, they are praying – ultimately – for the wrong people if the focus is on the politicians.

We should pray not as submissive serfs under the heavy thumb of a feudal lord, but as kings earnestly seeking divine guidance for ourselves and our fellow regents.

Now, don’t get me wrong: We absolutely must pray for the public servants holding these specific positions – just like an employer should pray feverishly for her employees, or a commander for the soldiers under his command.

All too often, though, the real leaders in our system of government, the ones for whom those title-holders work and take orders, never seem to be the object of corporate prayer. The citizenry has become an after-thought – if ever thought of at all – even by the citizens.

Yes, an ancient kingdom’s fortunes shifted with the attitude of the king, and Rome became a Christian empire because of Emperor Constantine’s edict. But in our republic, the citizen is the ruler.

All of this is by design; our Founding Fathers rejected kings and bequeathed us a constitutional republic where the direction is driven by the citizens. Don’t like where the country is heading? The problem starts not at the White House, but in the houses of our neighborhoods.

It is very easy, in a fallen world, to want a single person on whom we can thrust blame and outsource responsibility. The people of Israel certainly did so when they rejected the system of self-governance under God and demanded a king. Just as the ancient Israelites suffered for abandoning the political designs given to them by God, our abdication of governing obligations undergirds many of our modern political problems.

Even absentee citizens, those who don’t participate, are still ruling – they are just ruling badly. It is you, me, and our fellow citizens who rule; we are the “governing authorities” described in Romans 13 – not someone else. The responsibility to govern the republic wisely rests with us, not someone else. As for those who want to be ruled over as subjects rather than bearing the moral responsibility of being the ruler? They should find somewhere else to live.

Praying for our republic’s politicians and not the citizens is like asking a physician to alleviate the symptoms without addressing the disease. If we want righteous men and women to hold public office, we must start by praying for our neighbors and countrymen to be consumed by a desire for righteousness when electing the public servants.

Yes, we should pray for our public servants, for the men and women holding public office, but we should pray harder for our fellow citizens. If we are praying for the hearts of our nation’s leaders to be inclined to God, we must be praying more often – and much more explicitly – for the hearts and attitudes of our fellow citizens.