Politicians and prayer meetings

Politicians and prayer meetings August 6, 2011

According to news reports a national controversy has broken out over Texas governor Rick Perry’s association with a seven-hour prayer event to be held in Houston called “A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis.”  What is unclear from news reports is Perry’s precise relationship with the event.  I think evaluating that relationship depends very much on its nature.  Is Perry co-sponsoring it?  Merely attending it?  Publicly supporting it (in the sense of actively urging people to participate)?  What?

According to the news reports, the event itself is being sponsored by several evangelical groups including The American Family Association.  Somehow or other Rick Perry stands at the center of the event.  It is supposed to be diverse–inclusive of people of various religious and political persuasions.  However, it is being criticized sharply by a variety of religious people including some evangelicals and many so-called “mainline” Christians and secular people.  Predictably, People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State oppose it.

Based on what I have read about the event, here is my opinion of it:

1) Even political figures (including elected officials) have a right to attend and even participate in prayer meetings, but to sponsor, co-sponsor or promote one at least raises the specter of favoritism to one particular segment of society.

2) For those who object to that caveat (presumably the AFA and similar groups associated with the Religious Right) I ask how they would feel if the prayer meeting being sponsored, co-sponsored or promoted by the elected official was not evangelical in flavor but Roman Catholic, Mormon, Unitarian (I know, it’s unlikely, but…), or Muslim?  To them I ask: What if you lived in Utah or southern Idaho or northern Wyoming and most of your elected and appointed government officials were LDS and one of them, perhaps the governor, promoted a LDS-dominated prayer meeting for the state or the country?  Would you be okay with that?

3) To those who object to my first principle (that politicians and elected officials have every right to participate in prayer meetings) I ask whether they think politicians and elected officials have a right to attend church services?  Are they supposed to become secular or even atheists while in office?  (Sometimes I suspect some of them do think that–or at least that public officials should keep their religious beliefs and practices absolutely private if not secret while in office.)

4) Of course, things are never so simple as this.  In other words, these principles, while common sense (I believe, given our national principles of separation of church and state and freedom of religion), have to be interpreted and applied differently in different contexts.  If the prayer meeting in question is clearly dominated and controlled by a particular religious body or movement, public officials should be cautious about the level and manner of their participation.  For a state governor publicly to promote and even lead (in some sense) a prayer meeting clearly controlled by conservative evangelicals may be legal, but it gives the appearance, at least, of establishing one religious group as having special links with the government.  That’s bad for both government and religion.

5) One cannot evaluate Governor Perry’s promotion of and participation in this particular prayer meeting without taking into account his overall record of being supported by Religious Right groups including some fanatics who at least hint at revolution against the federal government in God’s name and of being openly conservative evangelical in his religious sympathies and affiliations.  I suspect much of the moderate criticism is based on suspicion that Perry does, in fact, officially favor a particular religious movement to the neglect of others.  (I have heard him speak at a large Pentecostal church in Austin; he made no effort to hide his sympathy with conservative evangelicalism.)

6) American public officials should make every effort NOT to even appear to favor a particular religion or denomination or religious movement over others AS A PUBLIC OFFICIAL.  As a private person, which a public official always also is, he or she has ever right to attend and participate in religious ceremonies.  However, a line of danger is crossed when a public official publicly endorses and participates in a parochial religious worship event wearing his or her public “hat,” as it were.

7) In Texas, anyway, much that goes under the name of conservative evangelical (or just “Baptist”) is far right -wing politically and socially.  And because many people in that state wear their religion “on their sleeve,” it is especially dangerous for a public official to blur the line between religion and state.  For example, some Texas politicians and public officials (and some in other states as well!) have spoken publicly in favor of capital punishment by quoting the Old Testament.  What would they (or their supporters) think if a public official supporting a policy and practice by quoting, say, the Koran or Book of Mormon or any other sacred text than the Bible?  I am certain most of them would be angry about it.  Double standards abound and persist.  In that context a public official needs to be very careful about appearing to favor a particular religious group.  The effect is to give permission for other public officials (perhaps elsewhere in America) to do the same with their competing religious group.  Double standards are always wrong.


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  • JohnM

    I don’t worry overly much about political leaders favoring a particular denomination or religion.

    1. If leaders/would be leaders seriously adhere to a faith or ideology I prefer them to “wear it on their sleeve”. I want to know about it. If I really don’t like it I can not vote for them. It’s the stealth idealogues I worry about.

    2. Given what our laws are, and the counter pressures in our pluralistic society, there’s only so much favoritism any public official can get away with.

    3. I’m suspicious that the intent, and net effect, of excluding public officials from endorsing pray meetings etc. is to marginalize religion in general and Evangelicalism in particular. I have to take into account the many that object to your first principal.

    4. Does it make a difference when they are professing Christians? If a professing Christian President (I’m referring to more than one here)can be pro abortion, start unprovoked wars, not attend church, be lewd and adulterous, or blatantly lie (no doubt I’m leaving a lot out, and that’s just Presidents) why should I care if public officials are Mormons, Unitarians, or Muslim instead of Christian anyway?

    • rogereolson

      You misrepresent what I said. I didn’t say public officials shouldn’t adhere to their particular religious beliefs. I said they should not show favoritism to a particular religious tradition community in their official roles.

      • JohnM

        Perhaps you misunderstand what I said. I didn’t suppose you said public officials shouldn’t adhere to their particular beliefs. The point is people should stop worrying so much that some public official is going to get away with favoring some particular group in any way that matters, at least not at higher levels of government. Looking at the track record I’d say Christians can stop hoping and and everyone else can stop worrying that any Presidents putative religion is going to drive his or her policy decisions or behavior in office. It hasn’t worked out that way. I’d also point out, speaking of avoiding apperances, it’s sometimes hard to separate criticism of public official’s expression of religious faith and criticism of the faith itself. In this country that’s particularly true when the expressions is, or as preceived as, conservative. You obviously intended no such denuciation, but some of the people who say the same things do.

        • JohnM

          PS to my last – I meant “..or is misperceived as, conservative” since that is sometimes the case. Also, at this point I don’t enough about Rick Perry to be for or against him, so this isn’t about me defending him if anybody’s wondering.

  • As a Texan, the problem I have is that I have learned over time that Rick Perry’s top priority is Rick Perry. Even though he claims to be a Christian — a claim I do not challenge — he is for himself more than Jesus, IMO.

    Of course he has a right to take part in a prayer meeting. But why did he have to stand on the platform and address the people? He is making a statement to evangelicals that he is one of them.

    Jesus talked about this issue. He said to pray in secret, not on the street corner to be seen by men (Matt. 6:5-6). That is where Perry has tipped his intentions.

    Earthly ambitions to be President have no place in legitimate public worship of Jesus Christ. If Perry is sincere, let him pray in the privacy of his home, just as Jesus said.

    With respect Prof. Olson, it is not you that Perry needs to please. It is the clear command of Christ that he must follow or show that he stands for something different.

    -Barry

  • Ivan

    In my opinion, a little more prayer and a lot less pontificating from political types would do wonders for what ails our nation.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I think it is odd that a politician would acknowledge our very real problems and point to a spiritual cause – and then ask us to pray that God would help us. All the good leaders of Israel (David is a prime example) tried to bring the people of their nation back to God. And isn’t he actually correct in his diagnosis? And isn’t he correct in his solution?

    I don’t know if his heart is pure in this or not; but if it is, I can’t think any ill of this.

    Roger, now that you’ve had a chance to see this played out, do you have any further reactions? Was it a good idea for these 30,000 people and their governor to ask God for help in this manner?

    • rogereolson

      IF (big IF!) the prayer meeting were truly multidenominational, representing the spectrum of American Christianity or religious life, and IF (big IF!) the politicians in attendance did not use it for political purposes, and IF (big IF!) such prayer meetings were called and well-attended during every administration and code words slamming the current administration weren’t in abundance….I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it. However, most of these public prayer meetings centering around political figures seem to me to have ulterior motives and they verge on idolatry in the way they subtly mix religion and political ideology.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    It seems to me that all your IFs pretty much exclude the possibility of such a thing every happening. I can only think of a few historic examples that might pass the test.

    I think its sad that this kind of situation exists. Public life is so polarizing – even over the unpolarizing desire to call on God for help.

    There are some notables in America for whom their “Rev” designations seem to allow them to speak authoritatively about politics. But there we have the reverse situation of “Church people” not seeking prayer, but blatantly seeking power over others.