When I heard that a Christian Renewal prayer rally called "The Response" would be coming to the largest auditorium in my hometown of Charleston on June 13, I mostly said to myself, "Ho-hum, here we go again with another unproductive prayerfest." But my interest piqued when I learned that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley endorsed the event and is heavily promoting it. She will be the only celebrity on stage as she welcome attendees and begins the prayer. While Governor Haley is inviting people of all faiths (perhaps even atheists?) to attend, I expect many would be uncomfortable at a prayer rally led only by evangelical Christians whose stated purpose is to exalt the name of Jesus (and nobody else).
Here are 5 questions about the event, along with my answers.
1. Who is behind The Response?
David Lane, president and founder of the American Renewal Project, is the leading backer of such events. Though billed as apolitical, Lane organized similar "apolitical" rallies in Texas and Louisiana. Governor Rick Perry spoke at the Texas event in 2011, just before he announced as a 2012 Republican presidential candidate. Governor Bobby Jindal spoke at the Louisiana event in January, and might soon announce as a 2016 Republican presidential candidate. Lane wants a religious right army to pick the next president. He believes homosexuality will lead to the destruction of America, and he thinks Christianity should be the official religion of the United States.
2. Is Governor Haley's action legal?
As a private citizen, or even as governor, Nikki Haley may attend any event she wants. But it became legally problematic when Governor Haley issued an open invitation to The Response written on official letterhead with the Seal of the Governor of South Carolina. She also made a video in her office encouraging all citizens to attend and join her in prayer to Jesus. When religious events are tied to elected officials and appear to be sponsored by the government, this sends a message to those of other faiths and none that they are second-class citizens. Governor Haley is free to tell everyone she is a Christian, but she should not use her office to promote Christianity. Government must not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion.
3. Is Governor Haley being religious or political?
Nikki Haley was raised a Sikh, and became a Christian prior to running for public office. I don't know if her conversion was sincere, but she must have considered that she could win much-needed votes by a public display of Christian piety. Who thinks that Haley would have been elected governor of South Carolina had she remained a Sikh?
When Nikki Haley became a gubernatorial candidate, her website first said, "I believe in the power and grace of Almighty God." She later felt the need to change it to "My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life. Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day."
A cynic might say, "Maybe it's also about winning elections."
4. Will The Response prayers work?
Yes, if "work" means energizing conservative Christians in South Carolina to promote issues like opposition to gay marriage, equating Christianity with morality, and combating secularism. Yes, if "work" means soliciting professions of Christian faith from other state politicians. I don't expect there will be prayers promoting public education, ending racism, treating women as equals, or even providing healthcare for all in the state, which has refused to expand Medicaid. And you certainly won't hear Matthew 6.5-6: "When you pray, be not like the hypocrites who love to pray in public so they may be seen by men. When you pray, enter the closet, shut the door, and pray to your father in secret."
There might be prayers for God to change the climate, although it didn't work when Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation on April 21, 2011 calling for three days of prayer to end the drought. I suppose I should be careful when I say it didn't work, because Glenn Beck claims that Perry's 2011 prayers belatedly inspired God to bring a flood to Texas in 2015. Neither Perry nor Beck believes humans are in any way responsible for climate change.
5. What is the best response to "The Response"?
I'm sorry the governor didn't try to bring people of all faiths and none together for a service day to make a real impact on problems in our community. Our local non-prophet group in Charleston, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, is organizing such inclusive events on June 13. While some evangelicals will be clasping their hands in prayer, many of us will be using our hands in projects that include feeding the hungry at Lowcountry Food Bank and building a wheelchair ramp as part of Operation Home. Similarly, Myrtle Beach Humanists and Freethinkers in South Carolina has organized a Humanist Day of Service. Relying on a god to save us is no substitute for fixing things ourselves. Leadership involves getting things done, not leading a mass appeal for a god to do it for us.
I'm inspired by the words of nineteenth century Republican, Robert Ingersoll, known as the great agnostic: "The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray."