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.
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.