Saturday, July 30, 2011

Politics and Prayer

James Richard (Rick) Perry, the current governor of Texas, may well be the Republican nominee for President in 2012. Gov. Perry (b. 1950) has not announced his candidacy. But he is getting high rankings in the polls and has strong backing from conservative Christians across the nation.
I envisioned this column before hearing about Gov. Perry possibly running for the presidency. Several months ago he proclaimed August 6 as a “solemn day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation.”
All of the other governors of the nation have reportedly been invited to the prayer meeting, and I have (from the Internet, of course) a copy of the letter Gov. Perry wrote, on official stationery, to the governor of Alabama on May 18. The official announcement about the prayer meeting was made on May 23.
As far as I have been able to determine, only two governors have accepted Gov. Perry’s invitation: Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Lousiana). Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah) sent regrets but signed a proclamation supporting Perry’s event.
To promote the prayer meeting, Gov. Perry has created a website, “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis.” On that website, the Houston Reliant Stadium event is described as “a non-denominational, apolitical Christian prayer meeting.”
 The “host entity” for the August 6 prayer meeting is the American Family Association (AFA), whose founder and chairman emeritus is Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, an influential conservative (fundamentalist) Christian leader.
The Response website indicates that it has adopted the AFA statement of faith. That means that the prayer meeting is clearly intended only for Christians, and even many moderate or liberal Christians would not be able to agree with the AFA statement.
A few weeks ago, Interfaith Alliance President Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a fellow Baptist minister whom I have known since we were in seminary together, called on Gov. Perry to refrain from using his public office for religious purposes. Rev. Gaddy wrote,
“Governor Perry’s call for governors around the country to join him in prayer and fasting this August raises serious concerns about his commitment to the boundaries between religion and government. It has been my experience that when elected leaders invoke religion in this way, it almost always has more to do with furthering a political agenda than a religious one.”
I agree with Welton.
Certainly, I have nothing against prayer, and I would not at all discourage politicians from praying. But that praying needs to be done primarily in their own “closet” and not publicly at a 70,000-seat football stadium.
I fully agree with Welton’s closing statement as well: “At the very least, I would hope that Governor Perry publicly confirms that no government funds or resources are now or will be in the future used to further this spiritual rally.”
As I wrote previously, there is a very close tie between conservative Christians and the Republican Party. And now it looks suspiciously like Gov. Perry is using, within the Republican Party, a public prayer meeting for political purposes. If so, that is far from commendable.


  1. A local Thinking Friend was the first to respond to this morning’s posting. He wrote (by e-mail) in part:

    “Did you take a stand against all the Democrat politicians and presidential candidates that were billed as expected attendees to promote the New Baptist Covenant a few years ago?

    “Did you take a stand against Democrat presidential candidates that campaigned in black churches in the last several elections?

    “I stand with you Leroy but I expect consistency from you and if you are not going to be consistent then I stand with Governor Perry's desires as a counter to the liberal wing of the Democrat Party.”

  2. Here is my response to the above questions/comments:

    It is true that Jimmy Carter was one of the most active persons in planning and promoting the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta close to three years ago. Another ex-President, Bill Clinton, spoke at that meeting. But they were not in office nor were they seeking office. And I seriously doubt that any government funds were used to promote the meeting.

    There were some sitting Congresspersons who spoke at the meeting, including Chuck Grassley, the Republican Senator from Iowa. Another Republican Senator was scheduled to speak, although for some reason he didn’t show up.

    I was at that meeting, and I can assure you it was highly apolitical. The meeting was about Baptists, not about Democrats and Republicans. And it was about reconciliation and cooperation, not about partisan politics.

    About your second point: surely you are not implying that it is only Democratic candidates who have spoken (campaigned) in churches during election season. And you wouldn’t imply, would you, that religiously conservative politicians never speak (campaign) in evangelical churches?

    I certainly think that there should be no open political campaigning in churches (advocating one political party or specific candidates) as long as those churches are tax exempt. But to my knowledge, it is primarily conservative churches that have, in fact, done that in recent elections--although there probably have been some African-American churches that have been "guilty" of that also.

    And I do intend to be consistent. I would also have been opposed to a (large, widely-publicized) prayer meeting called for by a Democratic governor. I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state, no matter which political party is in control of the state at a particular time.

  3. Traditionally, Baptists have supported the separation of church and state as a way of protecting the church. Certainly, both liberals and conservatives have at time bent the lines. However, there is a considerable difference between bending the lines to support civil rights and the needs of the poor, versus the narrow enforcement one's own particular theological slant.

    Black churches have been on the front line against poverty and outright evil. How does that compare to those who have made alliance between wealth and power? Since the days of Paige Patterson and Judge Pressler, over 30 years ago at the beginning of the so-called conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC has been an adjunct of the Republican Party. That is the kind of blurring of lines that raises alarms. Especially when it comes out of Texas, again.

    Now Rick Perry appears ready to come storming out of Texas. He may come from Methodist roots, and have been a Democrat recently enough to have supported Al Gore in 1988 (Perry turned Republican in 1989), but he is clearly a part of the Texas conservative fundamentalist Christian movement. As a member of a local church that took a long painful pilgrimage out of the Southern Baptist Convention over these same past 30 years, I am not happy to see yet another national manifestation of this political machine.

    My daughter explained to me a few years ago that there were then three recognized religions at her Liberty (Missouri) High School. They were Mormon, Pleasant Valley Baptist, and heathen. Students generally knew who fit in which groups. Please note that everyone from Catholic to Jehovah's Witnesses, from Episcopal to Presbyterian, to all the other Baptist churches in town, were "heathen." Now PVB and the Mormons probably are the two biggest churches in town, so on one level this is just demographics. Yet it also means they have an outsized profile that they need to carefully manage in local politics. Most communities will have their own local heavyweights. When religious heavyweights, whether local or national, throw their weight around, problems follow.

    Now, personally, I am a Democrat, and I have mixed feelings about George W. Bush's replacement in Texas being the next Republican Presidential nominee. Bush came within a handful of votes of losing both elections, a few hundred in 2000 in Florida, and about 50,000 in Ohio in 2004. Bush himself called his term a "catastrophic success." Maybe Perry would be one Texas Governor too many for the voters. On the other hand, both parties regularly win elections, and I can but hope that for him, past would not be prologue.

    Of course, by the time you read this, America may be in default, so maybe it just doesn't matter!

  4. I do not consider myself Baptist, although I currently attend that brand. However, having regularly been in National, American, and Southern Baptist churches related to work, I would say as a rule they are the most politically devout Democrats and Republicans within the walls (followed closely by the Presbyterians). This is sad division for the Kingdom of God. Probably the least political (D&R) were the United Methodists.

    Both political parties are right and wrong, and have no business in Church. This is JUST cultural christianity.

    I like the model of the Prayer Center (an organization not a church) which does focus their city prayer and worship in unity. I challenged their CEO who had been an active Republican on the duplicity. He humbly repented and became apolitical, but continued to push for change in the social agenda of our culture via the Church (both left and right politically - historic Christianity). There are not many American church leaders of any brand who do this well.