Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s call for a national day of prayer and fasting for the nation’s troubles may well have been inspired by a sincere, faith-based humility. Or it may be a sneaky way to cloak his entrance into a presidential campaign with an air of holiness.
Whenever faith is injected into the messy, often nasty American political discussion, it is faith that ends up being tainted. The politics stay as dirty as ever.
This is not to say that men and women of faith should not serve or be active in our participatory governing. It’s just that faith dwells deep in the heart. It certainly can provide a powerful personal motivation and guidance for public service. But political discourse, by contrast, is external and public and its currency includes ideas and arguments, not answers to prayer or scriptural principles.
And the inherent conflicts among different faiths make this confluence even messier. Evangelicals and Catholics, for example, hold some irreconcilable theological beliefs. So do Mormons and Unitarian-Universalists. And will Jews, Muslims and Buddhists be invited to the national day of prayer? Apparently not, since the governor’s call references Jesus.
For 60 years, a national day of prayer has been observed on the first Thursday in May. The Christian Bible calls on believers to pray for those in authority, so it is based in a sound doctrine. Though it is public, this prayer event is not led by an elected official, and so is not a shotgun marriage of faith and politics
Gov. Perry’s event is not likely to draw many Americans from the left side of the spectrum, making his call to “all Americans” rather disingenuous. Instead, the prayer event, scheduled for Aug. 6, may resemble the launch of the GOP’s bid to retake the White House.
It also conflicts with the words of Jesus, who urged his followers to pray and fast privately, so as not to call attention to the acts. Those who do so in public, Jesus said, already have received their reward. Furthermore, though the event’s organizers speak of the Bible’s call for a nation to repent, Christianity in fact has no national component, but rather is centered on an individual relationship between a believer and God.
Gov. Paul LePage signed a proclamation endorsing Gov. Perry’s event, citing calls for prayer by Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. By citing those presidents, Gov. LePage undercut his argument; Mr. Lincoln faced the dissolution of the union and Mr. Roosevelt faced a depression and world war. The leading crisis today is a debate over allowing the government to borrow more money.
The Maine Civil Liberties Union objects to Gov. LePage piggy-backing onto Gov. Perry’s event. Though both governors may have understood the day of prayer as a pat on the back to conservative Christians who feel they’ve been marginalized by a faith-neutral society, the event does in fact endorse a particular set of religious beliefs. And every such endorsement leaves those who do not share those beliefs feeling government is choosing sides.
Both Gov. Perry and Gov. LePage would do better to worship at their churches and pray, and then roll up their sleeves to do the best job they can for their states.