THE BLOG
08/08/2011 11:18 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2011

Rick Perry and the Real Power of Prayer

In staging (would any other verb be as apt?) a distinctly evangelical Christian prayer rally in Houston, Rick Perry has probably boosted his chances of gaining the GOP presidential nomination. But has he done the nation or his faith any good? Almost certainly not.

God's record of response to public prayers is no better than chance. The record of political leaders who wrap themselves in the Lord's mantle is even worse. Rick Perry himself responded to a terrible drought in the state he governs by declaring three days of prayer for rain. Three months later the drought has gotten so bad that at least one Texas town is preparing to recycle urine into drinking water.

As a political tactic, though, public piety can work wonders. In Shakespeare's Richard III, the eponymous scheming hunchback turns public opinion around by appearing on a balcony to pray between a pair of bishops -- "two props of virtue for a Christian prince." A few murders later, the hunchback is crowned king.

I don't know if Rick Perry reads Shakespeare, but according to the Texas Observer, he too has been proclaimed "the one" by a pair of preachers:

[T]he Lord's messengers arrived in the form of two Texas pastors, Tom Schlueter of Arlington and Bob Long of San Marcos, who called on Perry in the governor's office inside the state Capitol. ... The pastors told Perry of God's grand plan for Texas. A chain of powerful prophecies had proclaimed that Texas was "The Prophet State," anointed by God to lead the United States into revival and Godly government. And the governor would have a special role... At the end of their meeting, Perry asked the two pastors to pray over him. As the pastors would later recount, the Lord spoke prophetically as Schlueter laid his hands on Perry, their heads bowed before a painting of the Battle of the Alamo.

I'm not a praying man myself, but I'm the first to say that the power of prayer should never be underestimated. Not that there is the slightest reason to believe that any supernatural power responds to it. Yes, you can find studies that claim to have found positive effects from intercessory prayer, but you can also find studies that claim no effect or even negative effects. They all share the same basic flaws -- no one can know what prayers are being said for whom, or isolate the effects (if any) that result.

Fortunately, you don't have to rely on science. A little logic applied to theology should suffice. You cannot believe that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing deity who has a plan for everything, and also believe that your prayer will make a difference. Either it's already in the plan, or to grant it would make things worse. Moreover, you cannot really believe that God is good if He sits back and waits to see if those who are suffering plead for help or are fortunate enough to have others supplicate for them. That's not a God, that's a megalomaniacal tyrant.

Yet prayer clearly affects the lives of people who engage in it. As I said, I'm not a praying man, but I accept that it can inspire, relax, encourage, and uplift the person who prays. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has done studies that seem to confirm the physiological benefits of deeply meditative prayer.

There is a dark side to prayer, however. It can be used to bind people in unity, to channel their passions, and to focus their hatreds. That might be useful if, for example, you're the leader of a tribe about to lead your people in a battle against an enemy tribe. But it's pure poison in a civil, pluralistic society.

The purpose of Rick Perry's prayer rally is not to cure the nation's ills, it is to build an American Volksgemeinschaft -- a community of believers in a reactionary myth of America's history and the Christian religion. The promoters of this myth scorn constitutional law, separation of church and state, science, minority rights, and most of all the principle of tolerance. They strive for the one thing that the Founding Fathers fought most against: the establishment of religion at the core of government.

Yet, in doing so, Rick Perry and his pals also go against the very words of Jesus, as reported by the Bible (and recalled to me by my friend Edgar Pearlstein):

When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet ... Matthew 6:5-6 (KJV)

So, there you have it: When Governor Rick Perry leads a prayer rally, he is not only violating the U.S. Constitution, he is breaking faith with Christianity. And yet, they say, he may be rewarded with the Republican presidential nomination. God help us.