Thursday, August 11, 2011

Governor Rick Perry’s Prayer Event

8/11/2011—There is a political side and a legal side and a theological side of Governor Perry’s prayer event this past August 6. On the legal side, Governor Perry has said that no taxpayer money was used to finance the event. Though many people are skeptical of that claim, if true, that pretty much removes the event from Establishment Clause scrutiny. The event would then be a private one rather than the responsibility of the government.

Of course it could be asked whether a prayer event would violate the first amendment even if it were financed with government money. Right now, the federal government sponsors a national day of prayer and the most recent attempt to challenge that was dismissed for lack of standing. I suppose that a particular event rather than a call to national reflection would be different. Clearly, this event was Christian rather than nondenominational and that might be different as well.

A quite different matter is raised by a sitting Governor, and likely Presidential candidate, endorsing Christianity as necessary for the health of the country: “Like all of you, I love this country this deeply. Indeed the only thing you love more, is the living Christ.”

Does it violate what we could call the spirit of the Constitution for a candidate to run for office as a Christian candidate, sort of like the Christian Democratic Parties of Europe? This is the issue I raised in American Religious Democracy and I concluded that the answer must be, no. Whatever the Wall of Separation is, it is not a political barrier. The point of politics is to exclude the ideas of others—ideas that those others have a constitutional right to hold. So, a Socialist Party would have an absolute right to organized with only those committed to the abolition of private property, even though under current law, people have a right to own property and to advocate on its behalf. A Christian political party would be similar.

Of more interest to me, are the theological objections to the Evangelical form of Christianity that the Perry event espoused. For example, Sarah Posner writes the following in Religion Dispatches:

“The people who gathered at Reliant Stadium are not just Rick Perry’s spiritual army, raised up, as Perry and others imagine it, in the spirit of Joel 2 to sound an alarm and prepare the people for Judgment Day. They are the ground troops the religious right set out four decades ago to create, and duplicate over generations, for the ongoing culture wars. One part of that army is people like Perry himself, supported by religious right political elites who aimed to cultivate candidates, advocates, and political strategists committed to putting God before government.”

Now, part of Posner’s objection is political—the people at that event oppose abortion, gay marriage and, maybe, government spending programs (that is not quite so clear). Well, so what?

Part of Posner’s objection is cultural. She doesn’t like it when people prostrate themselves seeking forgiveness of sin. Has she never seen enthusiasm at a sporting event?

Part of Posner’s objection is theological. She clearly thinks this is bad religion. But is it? Here I think there are two objections. The first is that this form of Christianity puts God and obedience before politics and government. Martin Luther King, Jr. ought to be enough to put that objection to rest. If you believe in God, of course you put God and obedience before government and politics. That is precisely what Jesus did.

Presumably Posner, if challenged, would grant that. So, the real objection is that this is not a religion of love, unlike that of Jesus and Martin Luther King. It is a religion of war—of us/them of soldiers of God and fighting the heretics.

Here, Posner is on to something. And I’m guessing some people at this event would agree with her. But then I have to ask, isn’t Posner at war as well? This is a criticism that cuts many ways.

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