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The Problem with Gov. Perry's Prayerfest

Governor Rick Perry has had his prayer rally at a Reliant Stadium in downtown Houston. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether it is an auspicious sign or not that a typical football game at that same stadium attracts more than 50,000 more people than came to the governor’s prayerfest. Even in Texas, size is not the most important criterion of judgment in religious matters.

Many people were disturbed by the ministers Gov. Perry tasked with organizing the event. To be clear, the charge is not one of guilt by association. That McCarthyite tactic entails turning a casual association into a significant one. In this instance, Gov. Perry could have called the American Family Association and the Rev. John Hagee and others to put the event together. Hagee, you will recall, said such nasty things about Catholicism and about God’s involvement in the Holocaust, that Sen. John McCain declined the reverend’s endorsement in 2008.

The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer was another one of the principal organizers of the event. Fischer had this to say about Hitler’s need for gay stormtroopers: “So Hitler himself was an active homosexual. And some people wonder, didn't the Germans, didn't the Nazis, persecute homosexuals? And it is true they did; they persecuted effeminate homosexuals. But Hitler recruited around him homosexuals to make up his Stormtroopers, they were his enforcers, they were his thugs. And Hitler discovered that he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough to carry out his orders, but that homosexual soldiers basically had no limits and the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whomever Hitler sent them after. So he surrounded himself, virtually all of the stormtroopers, the Brownshirts, were male homosexuals.” Nice.

My difficulty with the event was different however from the fact that Gov. Perry keeps some strange company. After all, as a Catholic, we never know who is praying in the pew behind us and the greater the sinner the greater the grace.

My difficulty is not with the role played by these extremist, but with Perry’s role. Obviously, I do not have a difficulty with bringing religion into the public square: One of the purposes of this blog is to do precisely that. Nor does Gov. Perry’s event raise any Church-State issues. But, by serving as the convener of such a specifically Christian prayer meeting, Perry entered into new terrain and adopted a new role and it is far from clear that he understands the first thing about how religion and politics can or should intersect. To wit, he mentioned that God’s “agenda is not a political agenda. It is a salvation agenda.” That seems to suggest a divorce between religion and politics that, well, makes it difficult to explain why an elected official was sponsoring a religious event. In the Catholic tradition, there are specific political consequences from God’s “salvation agenda.”

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If Perry wishes to bask in the applause at his oh, so public prayer meeting, he needs to understand that he is now open to public criticism for his specifically theological views. Normally, I think it is a little unfair to expect politicians to speak like theologians. In 1960, also in Houston, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy delivered a famous speech about the separation of church and state to a group of Protestant ministers. I have been critical of some aspects of that speech, and decidedly critical of some of the consequences of that speech. But, it is important to remember that Kennedy’s speech was a campaign speech, not a theological discourse. He was running to President of the United States, not Archbishop of Washington. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, famously expressed his view on the relationship of religion and politics saying, “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is.” Again, not exactly the kind of remark designed to get an A in a theology course but, again, Eisenhower did not harbor religious pretensions.

Hosting a prayer summit, alas, suggests a certain religious pretension. Still, I was surprised that Perry asked God’s forgiveness for, among other things, “fear in the marketplace.” And, here is Perry’s difficulty: He espouses – and he surrounds himself with others who espouse – a shockingly superficial theology in which he names a problem or articulates a goal, finds a biblical proof text that has some, often a tangential, relationship to what he is talking about, and – voila! Jesus is going to forgive you your fear in the marketplace. America will be judged by how it treats Israel. (It is one of the most delicious of public ironies that the same Christian conservatives who defend Israel for religious reasons of their own are the same people who denounce European socialism, in blissful ignorance of the complicating fact that Israel was founded by European socialists.) God wishes the state to punish gays because the Bible says so, albeit just after the Bible also forbids the eating of shellfish and pork.

In the long history of our Republic, religion has often been abused for political gain, and not only by Republicans. It was a Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, who sought an end to the gold standard by demanding that the nation not be nailed to a “cross of gold.” And it was Hubert Humphrey, who did as much as almost anyone in the twentieth century to advance social justice, who took as his campaign theme song during the 1960 primaries against Kennedy “Give me that old time religion.” Conversely, there is not an American theologian, living or dead, Catholic or Protestant, who has better captured the inscrutable nature of God than Abraham Lincoln did in his second Inaugural Address.

Governor Perry – You are no Lincoln. You are also no Niebuhr. Normally, it is unfair to compare a politician to the latter, but you have invited the comparison. Your theological views are now fair game. That is not only my problem with Saturday’s prayerfest. It is Perry’s problem.

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July 18-31, 2014

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