Call to prayer doesn’t foster ‘unity’

Published 8:24 am Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Column: Charles C. Haynes, Inside the First Amendment

With Texas Gov. Rick Perry poised to run for president, it may be a good time to ask what his recent call for a “day of fasting and prayer” tells us about how he would govern the nation.

Will Durst

Unlike past “prayer proclamations” by elected officials — a staple of political life for much of our history — Perry’s prayer plan includes an evangelical Christian revival meeting to be held in a Houston stadium on Aug. 6.

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Advertised as a “non-denominational, apolitical, Christian prayer meeting,” Perry’s rally is being organized and funded by the American Family Association, a conservative Christian advocacy group perhaps best known for its strong opposition to gay rights.

The governor is not merely participating in the day-long prayer event: He’s listed on the AFA website as “the initiator” — and appears first on the roster of prayer-day “leaders.”

In his official “call to prayer” Perry appears to invite everyone, asking “fellow Texans” to join him at the stadium to fast and pray for “unity and righteousness.” But on the event’s website, the governor makes it clear that the gathering is really for those who pray in the name of Jesus:

“As a nation we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom.”

What Perry doesn’t explain is how organizing a governor-led, Christian-only prayer event will serve to create “unity” in what is now the most religiously diverse society on earth.

Perry has also invited his fellow governors to join him at the stadium on Aug. 6. But just as all Texans aren’t evangelical Christians, neither do all governors share Perry’s brand of Christianity.

Of course, Rick Perry, like every American, is free to pray and worship as his conscience dictates. Throughout our history, many elected officials have been highly visible participants in their religious communities (think President Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday Bible classes).

But Perry’s prayer plan is something new and different. As one critic of Perry’s prayer call, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told The New York Times:

“I have followed religion and politics closely for 35 years, and I have never seen a governor initiate and lead this kind of Christians-only prayer rally.”

Perry’s proclamation, at least, is constitutional under current law. The courts have thus far held that elected officials may proclaim such oft-challenged days of prayer and fasting — as long as the proclamations are mere acknowledgements of the place of prayer in many people’s lives, and not state mandates.

But even if Gov. Perry’s prayer proclamation is legal, what message does he send to the millions of Americans of other faiths — and those with no religious affiliation — when, as governor, he initiates and leads a Christian prayer rally for “national unity”? It raises questions about how much minority religions can rely on him to protect their rights — and treat their beliefs with fairness and respect.

Far from uniting Americans, this mixture of religion and politics is a recipe for conflict and division. That’s why Thomas Jefferson insisted on separating church from state, and why, as president, he resisted pressure to declare days of fasting and prayer.

“Fasting and prayer are religious exercises,” Jefferson wrote. “Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”

Perry’s prayer rally may prove popular with conservative Christian primary voters, but that doesn’t make it wise or right.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail: