For the past 20 years, I've had the privilege of helping lead a delegation from the Middle East to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that gathers politicians and people of influence from around the world over several days. It's one of the few prayer events where you're as likely to see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as you are to see Sam Brownback or Sarah Palin. It's my favorite week of the year. It's hard to put into words how inspiring it is to see Democrats and Republicans, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus -- and probably a few non-religious types thrown in the mix -- gathering together to pray and talk about faith. What's even more remarkable is the one person that every politician or religious leader agrees on: Jesus. From the opening prayer to the closing ceremony, and every workshop and roundtable discussion in between, the life and teachings of Jesus take center stage. As a follower of Jesus who believes in prayer, this is a prayer event I can sign on to.
Governor Perry's prayer rally last Saturday....
Not so much.
What I and my other friends do as private citizens during the week of the National Prayer Breakfast differs significantly from Governor Perry, who holds a position of considerable power over others. As the commander and chief of the state of Texas, the decisions that he makes have the potential to affect who gets access to housing, jobs, and social services, and who doesn't. As a death penalty state, he also gets to decide who lives or dies.
Such is the nature of political office. Politicians have power over others that private citizens do not, and it's precisely because politicians wield so much power over their constituents that some actions that may be appropriate for private citizens are less appropriate for politicians. There are times when it may be appropriate for politicians to attend a prayer event or call upon their constituents to pray, but when politicians use the influence of their office to summon prayer for a particular religious or political agenda, people who don't share the politician's religion or political views have every right to feel that they're being marginalized by an individual who is abusing their power.
Governor Perry and the supporters of "the Response" can say all they want that the prayer rally was a non-political event, but the fact is the event was sponsored by the American Family Association, an exclusively Christian group with a narrowly-focused political agenda that revolves mostly around outlawing abortion and curtailing gay rights. Supporters of the event say that Governor Perry's promotion of the event is a demonstration of what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the first amendment -- keeping government from influencing the church, not the other way around -- but would they say the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot? What if President Obama were to promote a prayer event sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task force, where tens of thousands of Christians from liberal mainline churches gathered together to pray against the encroaching tide of fundamentalism? Would Governor Perry and the sponsors of "the Response" chalk it up to religious freedom -- or would they call it political persecution?
My point is not to denigrate the political views of Governor Perry and the people that attended "the Response." Abortion and gay-marriage are controversial issues that deserve to be debated as part of a robust national dialogue. I'm not even saying that Governor Perry shouldn't have been able to promote and attend the event. I'll leave that to the constitutional scholars to decide. The real issue is to what degree -- if any -- should followers of Jesus cozy up to the power of political office to force an agenda, regardless of what that agenda looks like, over others.
Some say that Governor Perry used the event to consolidate his credentials as a social conservative so that he could be free to move onto other issues more important to independent voters. I don't think that's fair. Only God knows the sincerity of a man's heart. But here's my suggestion for the next politician that feels the need to call the nation to prayer, and wants to do so in a way that honors Jesus. Why not make the event open to people of all faiths and political persuasions? And rather than focusing on a narrow set of political concerns, why not make the focus of prayer something that Jesus actually talked about, like removing the planks from our eyes before we judge others... and loving our neighbor as ourselves?
Love your neighbor.
I think we can all use a little help with that.
Carl Medearis is the author of "Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism"