Texas Governor and potential presidential candidate Rick Perry is heading up "Response," a day of Christian prayer, to respond to the crises that face America today. The event itself is deeply disturbing, but so are many of the responses to it. Addressing both is necessary if there is any hope of this being anything more than one more pointless battle in America's culture wars.
Of course, if all anyone wants is to use the event as an excuse to trumpet what they already believe and defend only those who are most like themselves, then there are already plenty of people moving in that direction. We can follow them, but then we would be little better than the worst of those supporting Response -- confusing what they believe with what everybody ought to believe -- a particularly ironic aspect of a prayer event which claims that humility is an especially sacred character trait. They seem to confuse humility with the impulse to humble others, but that is another story.
Response, being planned in partnership with the American Family Association and scheduled for August 6 in Houston's Reliant Stadium, is deeply disturbing for so many reasons that I will not even try to name them all. Instead, I will limit myself to the top three.
First, Response presumes not only that prayer is the best response to what ails us as a nation, it presumes that the response must specifically be Christian prayer and the restoration that can only be found through bending one's knee to Jesus (the organizers' language, not my hyperbole). If your idea of a good time is turning contemporary America into a version of Medieval Europe, then this is for you. If not, then not so much. But religious triumphalism is not the only big problem with Response.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the claim found in Response promotional material which suggests that we can rid ourselves of all of our problems, including natural disasters, if we just prayed enough. The corollary to that claim is that our problems, including floods and tornadoes are a punishment from God. People are entitled to any views they want, but public servants charged with keeping us safe and responding when our health, safety or security are challenged better be focused on the this-worldly causes of those threats. When the focus shifts to the theological, they should move their offices from State Houses to the house of worship of their choice.
Finally, the lead partner in organizing Response is the American Family Association, a group which in addition to spreading grotesque falsehoods about gay people (they are more likely to molest children), constantly fights not simply for their own rights as conservative Christians, but to curtail the rights of others in the name of Christianity. We can debate the appropriate place of such groups in America, but choosing them to lead the response in healing what ails our nation makes a pretty scary claim about what defines good American, who is causing our problems and legitimizing the fight against "them" as much as making a case for the importance of prayer. Scary indeed.
The responses to Response, however, also largely miss the mark. The head of the Houston chapter of CAIR, the Muslim public affairs group, said that the problem is not focusing on prayer; the problem was that it was "strictly Christian." Great! As long as his prayers are included, this is OK? I don't think so.
No better was Houston's Mayor, Annise Parker, who proclaimed that she is "glad to have anybody's dollars coming to the city of Houston. They can come back on a monthly basis if they'd like as long as they spend money." Does Mayor Parker realize what she said? Is everything for sale? I believe in free speech as much as anybody, but protecting their right to gather does not entitle the organizers' of Response to a red carpet welcome, especially when the only reason for rolling it out is because they pay for the carpet.
These are just a few examples of people objecting, or failing to object, to Response based on only one thing: how the event fits with their own narrow agenda. That approach is what makes these people tragically similar to those who are planning the event itself.
The test of these kinds of events is not simply who is included, as I suspect that the organizers will probably find themselves including a somewhat wider range of views and voices over the coming weeks. The real test is who is left out and how those at the event will speak about them.
Greater inclusiveness is all well and good, but until there is a plan which respectfully addresses those left out or those who choose not to participate, Response, and all those responding to it, will be adding to America's woes not healing them.
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