Preparing a presidential run Texas Governor Rick Perry has announced "The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis," a highly publicized prayer meeting at Houston's Reliant Stadium on August 6. He invites Americans "to pray and fast like Jesus did" in the face of national challenges. Perry's supporters insist it is not a political event, that he is exercising his religious rights as a private citizen. Although everyone is invited (at this late date only 6,000 have registered for the 71,500 seat stadium), it is an explicitly Christian event.
Setting aside Jesus' teaching that prayer should be private and not for show (Matt 6:5-6) or Isaiah's insistence that the fasting God prefers is feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the poor (Isa 58:6-8), calling this gathering "non-political" raises even church ladies' eyebrows. Will there be no political speeches or prayers in a seven hour meeting?
A clue to the content attendees can expect may be found in the outrageous political statements made by the event's sponsors. C. Peter Wagner advocates burning statues of Catholic saints and sacred objects of Mormons and Native Americans. John Hagee calls the Catholic Church the "Whore of Babylon" and advocates bombing Iran. John Benefiel insists the Statue of Liberty is an idol. And the main sponsor, the American Family Association, has been listed as a "hate group" for political rhetoric against homosexual Americans by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Are these the political allies Rick Perry chooses in running for the office that represents all Americans? To be sure, as a private citizen, he is entitled to his beliefs. But that begs the question about his religious beliefs. Citizens have a right to ask what he believes as their governor and potential presidential candidate, as was candidate Obama when questioned about his pastor's statements. To date, Perry has refused to voice disagreement with his allies' extreme views - leaving the people of Texas to assume he agrees with them.
Public prayer has a place in the life of a religious nation, but is properly based on our core values of religious liberty, pluralism, and the separation of church and state. Historically, leaders called for prayer in times of crisis to seek unity as a humble appeal to a Higher Power. At a critical moment of division in the nation, Governor Perry has excluded Jewish, Muslim, or other non-Christian believers as event sponsors, and included several Protestant leaders who regularly attack the Catholic faith. While people of all faiths are invited to attend, Eric Bearse, the spokesperson for the event, has suggested a key purpose of the gathering is to evangelize non-Christians: "That's what we want to convey, that there's acceptance and that there's love and that there's hope if people will seek out the living Christ."
Rick Perry has regularly used religion to divide Texans. He participated in six "Pastor's Policy Briefings" sponsored by "The Texas Restoration Project." Two of his appointees to chair the State Board of Education were rejected by the Texas Legislature (no bastion of liberalism, I assure you!) because of their religious agenda in controlling public school curriculum. To the embarrassment of Texans and the detriment of school children, this group rejects the idea of separation of church and state and ignores expert advisors on textbooks in preference for extreme religious worldviews. Rather than seeking a centrist leader more representative of all Texans, the Governor appointed a third religious idealogue who will not have to be ratified by the legislature for two years.
Announcing his prayer event as "nonpolitical" is religiously ignorant at best and politically dishonest at worst (honesty being one of the core values of most religions). Prayer is one of the most political acts religious people perform because it leads us to focus and act upon our deepest values. Only prayer barren of specific content, assumed by the pray-er to be meaningless, could ever be called "nonpolitical." Assuming the Governor and his supporters believe in the power of prayer, how can they claim these prayers will have no political implications? Even religious conservatives understand that using God's name as a means for power through political exploitation is "taking God's name in vain."
Why would a Christian pastor object to a prayer meeting? Because this prayer meeting is politics using religion to seek power. Because this prayer meeting is sponsored by religious extremists whose political views are repugnant to mainstream religious Americans. Because at a moment when religion should be a way to bind us together, this prayer meeting divides Americans one from another. Because this "prayer meeting" is in fact a political rally.
It makes sense that we all pray -- each in our own way -- in a time of crisis. Let us pray our leaders will stop using God's name to divide us and prayer as a political weapon.