Texas Governor Rick Perry seized the mantel of political-religious activism last presidential election cycle when he co-sponsored a prayer rally in Houston that reportedly attracted some 30 thousand fundamentalist Christians. “Our agenda is a salvation agenda,” he told an admiring crowd. Perry put aside any constitutional concerns over separation of church and state making it a governor’s certified state sponsored rally, using his official Website, stationary and other resources in the promotion.
Not to be outdone, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal led a similar rally at LSU’s basketball arena, calling for a national spiritual revival and telling the crowd that “our God wins.” I guess I’m okay with such a victory as long as everyone shares the same God. But what if the rally was not evangelical in flavor, but was sponsored by the governor in support of Mormonism (who believe they are the only true form of the Christian religion), Unitarianism, (that perceives Christ as human, rather than divine), Hindu (Jindal’s parents were Hindu), or even, pray tell, Islam? Would you be okay with a governor sponsoring a prayer meeting dominated by another faith?
The test is not what religious beliefs a politician accepts in private life. But when that same politician organizes and leads a religious rally in a public capacity, has he or she crossed the line into public endorsement? And if so, is that the job of a governor in his or her public capacity to validate particular religious beliefs?
Actually, if one reads the New Testament, Jesus is quite clear on religious pontification in public. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1.) The scriptures go on to say: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. They love to stand in prayer in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus generally prays alone, and often condemns public prayer.
Now let me be clear. I am in no way deriding politicians who attend church services, and who even offer a greeting at the request of the presiding pastor. Elected officials, particularly in the South, often are invited participants in religious gatherings. During my twenty-eight years of public life as a Louisiana elected official, I attended hundreds of services throughout the state. Dinner of the grounds following Sunday services at a host of rural country churches was a regular ritual for my family living up in Northeast Louisiana.
My parents had me baptized in the Church of God, a branch of the Pentecostal church. Reverend Jimmy Swaggart from my hometown of Ferriday is of the same denomination. And I wasn’t just “sprinkled” with holy water. No, I was fully submerged, as was tradition of John the Baptist. So I am in no way denigrating regular church attendance. But when I attended church as a public official, I went as guest and not as an instigator. I went to participate and not to initiate.
It’s a question of who does the organizing and who does the preaching. Performance prayer events that put politicians in the spotlight would seem to run counter to the teachings that come directly from the New Testament. “When you were praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
Masking political rallies as prayer meetings create culture war wedge issues that undermine the legacy of religious liberty. Our nation’s founders did not view religious freedom as some government handout. But it’s hard to convince some of today’s politicians otherwise.
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.
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