Jul 3, 2011

Politics, identity & public prayer 2

The Call2Fall evangelical prayer event this Sunday is not the most controversial prayer event of the summer. Nor even the most political.

Though the over-identification and even conflation of Christianity with a very particular kind of politics makes many uncomfortable, this weekend's event hasn't gotten news attention, hasn't caused an upset or created any brouhaha.

It just didn't crossed any of the intracultural borders where fights get started.

The big prayer event of the summer, in terms of controversy and attention, is Texas Gov. Rick Perry's The Response.


This day of prayer, which is set for next month, crossed all those lines where fights are started. Announcements that the possible presidential contender was calling for prayer predictably enough set off the expected critics and their critiques, and then the reactions to the critics of The Response, both those of good faith and of the faux wounded. It played into the old fight. New specifics, but same arguments as last time.

I don't want to play ref for the fight and count the good solid hits or call the rounds. No one wins these things anyway. But -- there are a couple of arguments, one for and one against, which are interesting and worth thinking about.

The biggest argument against Perry's day of prayer, besides the involvement of the American Family Association, which is also, incidentally, involved in today's Call2Fall, is that it excludes everyone who isn't a Christian. The prayer will not be pluralistic, and isn't open to anyone who might agree that "America is in a state of crisis" and that prayer is called for but might not want to pray to Jesus specifically. Whereas many public prayers are pluralistic, Perry's The Response is explicitly not. Prayers offered will be to Jesus alone. It is a Christian prayer meeting with a non-denominational Christian statement of faith. The invitation is to "call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles"

The website makes reference to the First and Second Great Awakenings, and is probably best understood as an Evangelical event, though there is some outreach to Catholics as well, and at least one high-profile Catholic politician is reportedly coming.

One might have expected a similar gesture towards Jews, but that's not the case. Even as the scripture used to promote the event is a single passage from a minor prophet from the Jewish scriptures, Joel 2:12-14, Jews aren't welcome unless they, in the words of the event's spokesman, come ready to "feel the love, grace and warmth of Jesus Christ."

At least one leader of a non-Christian faith has said he would like to join with the governor and others in prayer for Texas and America, but feels unwelcome: Mustafaa Carroll, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Houston, said "We're down with the prayer part ... just wish they would join other people in the prayer," according to the Houston Chronicle.

Of course, pluralistically acceptable prayers are problematic for a number of reasons. Anyone who thinks Evangelicalism is open and amenable to the kind of universalism common to such civic religion hasn't looked very closely at Evangelicalism. And ecumenicism can be theological problematic for a lot of people. Beyond that, such prayers, to be pluralistic, have to be stripped of everything that is supposed to make them meaningful -- prayers that are acceptable in a secular society are mostly those that have been made to mean nothing.

The problem with The Response isn't that it's not pluralistic, anyway. Not really. The problem is that it functions to construct an identity and that identity conflates Christian and American.

Where Call2Fall was about Evangelical identity -- a chance to participate in an act that designates one as part of a particular us, with certain politics falling out of that identity and certain groups being excluded -- The Response extends that. Those who respond with The Response are joining in a construction of an identity of themselves as "those who pray." More, that identity is constructed in a way that equates it with "Christians," and, even more problematically, equates that with "American."

The governor's invitation, for example, specifically asks people to join their "fellow Americans" in the prayers to Jesus. The implication there is that citizenship does not extend to Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, the non-religious, etc. The implication is that participation in Evangelical prayers is the same as participation in the American project -- non-Christians (or perhaps non-Evangelicals) might be tolerated by America, but they are not it.

The call, issued on the website, is for an "us," a "we." But who is that "we"? It's the we who "come together" "as a nation."

Call2Fall, by contrast, names those who will join in its day of prayer as a "remnant," and issued a Catalogue of Sins that makes it explicit the people praying can't be understood as being identical to Americans. The "we" of Call2Fall understands itself as an embattled minority, where the "we" of The Response is framed as being identical to America itself.

Put it another way: this event of Perry's is for "Christian America," but the event is set up to work in such a way that those two words are taken as necessary synonyms.

The best argument for Perry's day of prayer is the historical one.

Defenders of the rightness of a governor calling for public prayer and designating a day as a day of prayer point out that this has happened through America's history. And that's true. If you're going to argue that it violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, well, you have to explain how, e.g., that was done by all four of the men immortalized on Mount Rushmore. To be fair, Thomas Jefferson hesitated to call for national prayer as president, but even he had no problem doing this as a governor.

That doesn't mean such calls can't be problematic, but history is on the side of such calls being acceptable in America.

The historical consideration is worth pursuing further, though. Merely making the point "this happened" is fine, but it's interesting to actually go back and look a little more on what happened when this happened, how the rhetoric worked, and what the function of such a call to prayer was.

Abraham Lincoln's National Fast Day of 1863, for example, has a theological depth to it that's well worth contemplating. It's also totally fascinating in the way it's not merely congratulatory and self-satisfied, but actually kind of harsh.

He takes what we would today call "American Exceptionalism," for example, and uses it against America. It's not a matter of glory, but shame. Lincoln writes that "we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own."

He condemns even exactly the sense of self that Americans of that era had -- the thing about themselves they valued the most. He says it's Americans' self-reliance, self-sufficiency, etc., that is offensive to God, that is the sin for which America is being punished by civil war.

Note -- it's not the South's sins being punished. It's not the sins of Lincoln's political opponents. There isn't, in his 1863 call to prayer, actually any "them," any talk of "other people." The people being addressed aren't even addressed as the people who prayer, contributing to this self-identity as praying people, but as the people who ought to be deeply sorrowful, ashamed, etc., for "our presumptuous sins."

The fact that Lincoln's own faith was deeply idiosyncratic and is still more than a little inscrutable only adds, I think, to how startling his call for prayer is. I can't imagine anyone today calling for a "national day of humiliation." Humiliation! Suggesting that America should be humiliated would be about the same as suggesting, in the words of Jeremiah Wright, that "God damn America."

But this was the president. The face on the $5 and the penny. Calling the country "Intoxicated with unbroken success," and asking that people identify themselves as the "we" who "humble ourselves before the offended Power."

Lincoln doesn't suggest, either, that the day of prayer itself is the solution. He's doesn't even confident that there is a solution. He offers hope only on the mercy of that offended power, as, he says, is warranted by scripture.

All of that can be interestingly contrasted with the Texas Governor's call to prayer.

"The Response" conceives of itself as the answer -- in the name, e.g., which, notably, does not refer to a divine response to prayer, as one might assume, but to the prayer and the prayer day itself. The website sets up the corporate act of Christians/Americans as sufficient in and of itself, offering "Historic Response" as what comes between "Historic Crisis" and "Historic Breakthrough."

The video promoting the event also throws the question out there, "Who's responsible?" without actually offering an answer. Cutting between different people, e.g., a teacher in front of a white board, a woman in front of children on a couch, a rancher, a janitor, a man in a suit, the video asks "Why is this happening to us? To me? To them? To this nation? Who is responsible?" But there isn't an answer. There's a transition, instead, to an answer -- not to the question, but to the crisis, the answer being "we must make a response."

Call2Fall does go into the question of who's responsible, at least in the background information available on the website (if not in the actual 3 to 5 minutes of prayer offered in churches). The blame is placed primarily on Christians/Evangelicals, though the emphasis on that understanding of logically prior sin is buried pretty deep, while the "moral decay" of others is foregrounded more prominently. The Response doesn't even do this, though. Officially, the website doesn't answer at all, though I suspect that, humans being humans, the responsibility will mostly be understood as being that of other people, the guilt displaced.

The video certainly isn't interested in Lincoln-style humiliation. Certainly there are no invitations to "Rick Perry's National Day of Humiliation." What you get, instead, is triumph, with swelling music and impassioned commitments to "lift up our cry to Jesus," inter cut with shots of a stadium crowd with arms raised.

Personally, I don't actually find the self-construction of an identity offered by the video or Perry's event particularly surprising. I don't find the political undertones of this supposedly apolitical event peculiar. I expect this sort of triumphalism. If anything, I'm shocked by Lincoln and Lincoln's call to prayer. His rhetoric seems unthinkable to me.

The appeal to history made by supporters of Perry's day of prayer is right, but the move also opens up some contrasts and offers some insights into where we're at today.

Public prayer of the sort that's being offered up this summer involves a rhetoricization of the so-called God Gap, acting, actually, to construct the gap that's supposedly "just there." It defines for us that which is supposedly defining us. Historically, we can how this isn't necessary. Public prayer could be of a different sort than it is. Public prayer could be understood differently, framed another way, functioning to do different things.

Looking at the rhetoric of this summer's public prayers, we see that even apart from what the prayers are for, there's this self-formation going on, where people are actively engaging in an erection of an idea, of a sense of what it means to be Evangelical, and what it means to be American.