Jul 1, 2011

Politics, identity & public prayer

A lot of very political prayer has been organized for this Sunday.

Across America, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, churches -- by my count 2,440 of them, most identifiably Evangelical -- have been organized to all together pray about "America's rapid moral and spiritual decline over the last 50 years." They're specifically targeting the "new depths of depravity," i.e. legalized same-sex marriage and the health care bill passed last year.

It's not clear, though, if you're sitting in one of these churches, when they pray for 3 minutes or 5 during the regularly-scheduled service on Sunday morning, that that's what you'll hear.

It's quite possible that, through the whole effort, no one will explicitly say what is being prayed for.

This is because what they're praying for isn't the essential point. The politics is actually secondary; the construction of an identity is primary.

Most of the rhetoric around the prayers and in the prayers themselves will not be about any socio-political issues, but about the saying of the prayers and those saying them.

You can find the "culture war" stuff, if you look on the Call2Fall website, which was put together by the prayer day organizers, the Family Research Council. The website says, for example, that terrorist attacks, natural disasters and the financial crisis are all directly linked to that moral decline denoted by married gays and lesbians and the health care bill, as that's "what happens when a nation turns away from God."

You'll find, too, that the proclamation of the Evangelical prayer day proceeding Independence Day says, "Our civil servants and magistrates ... have become corrupt lords and tyrants who ... crush us with confiscatory taxes, suffocate us with oppressive regulation, bankrupt our nation with profligate spending and control our thoughts with anti-Christ intimidation," construing programs designed, for example, to ensure clean drinking water or feed poor children as essentially anti-Christian.

They frame the problem with such programs not as a matter of being merely misguided or ineffective, but a great evil, which is what "culture war" means if it means anything.

The "Catalogue of Sins" offered by the Family Research Council on the prayer-promoting website is clearly a document that reinforces this idea of the Christians' necessarily being politically conservative (in the uniquely American and contemporary American sense of that). It includes such quasi-Christian Reconstructionist items as "Exaltation of State as God, nullifying His laws & demanding control over areas of life (including the Church & Family), that rightly belong to God," "Thievery via confiscatory levels of income tax," "Oppression via suffocating overregulation," and "Usurpation of parents’ authority by indoctrinating children into sexual promiscuity, pantheism (worship of the environment), polytheism (multiculturalism), atheistic humanism, liberal politics, socialism & statism under the guise of public 'education' while failing to teach fundamental academics or simple truths of right & wrong."

Still, the Catalogue -- which is a really fascinating document, actually -- is a long list, and is actually front-loaded with different sorts of items. It starts, e.g., with "Prayerlessness," "Idolotry," and "Lack of love, devotion & service to God," which are really not things evangelicals are attributing to others, as the fault of those on the opposite side of the culture war or "God Gap." They are, rather, sins self-applied.

The more primary sins, in their own conceptions, are their own sins. Essentially the message is that Evangelical Christians' sins caused America to accept abortion, homosexuality, etc., and that then those sins caused the collapse of the twin towers in September a decade ago and other things in the same vein of catastrophe. The distinction here is between proximate cause and ultimate cause.

A second category of sins on the list could be applied by Evangelicals to others, but it's ambiguous in the Catalogue. It seems like the second sort of sins might actually be understood better as confession than condemnation. E.g.: "Covetousness, selfishness, greed & materialism," "Gluttony," "Pornography & other sexual perversions," "Arrogance, pride," "Unfaithful church attendance, fellowship & lack of wholehearted participation," etc.

All of this will be present in the prayers on July 3. They will be very political prayers, and also confessional on some level too. But that will all be secondary. It'll be, mostly, below the surface, and referenced in coded ways. This stuff on the website won't be spelled out or emphasized in the few minutes the churches are giving to this specific prayer.

The rhetoric will primarily be about prayer.

It won't primarily be about what the prayers are for, but about the prayers themselves. Rhetorically, this will function to construct a self identity. The main thing will at these 2,000+ churches this Sunday will be this identity construction -- which then, secondarily establishes the necessity of conservative politics for Evangelicals, enforces the self-perceived, self-identified "God Gap," and allows for an environment where it's commonly accepted, e.g., that "the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God" and thus not compatible with real Christianity (which then re-enforces the identity, the necessary political associations, the "God Gap," and so on).

If you're sitting in one of these 2,000+ churches this Sunday, joining the evangelicals involved in the Call2Fall, the politics will be almost sub textual.

The emphasis, the focus, will be on the praying itself, with the identification of that act in a corporate setting doing the work it's supposed to do.

The references will be to 2 Chronicles 7:14, "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray ...." There will be explicit and repeated references to the actual act of praying, with descriptions, even lots of descriptions, of the act itself. Call2Fall recommends, for example, a popular evangelical worship song for the occasion, Steven Fry's "We Bend our Knees." The song says "We'll bend our knees" twice in every verse, emphasizing the act. The web sites declaration foregrounds the act of prayer as well, saying "we get on our knees and faces before the Lord." The main promo video repeats the scripture quotations about prayer and is framed as an invitation to prayer, and the site offers lists of scripture references to the act of falling on one's knees in prayer. The resources offered to hosting pastors are all primarily about prayer and the idea of this prayer, with very little actually said about the politics and the cultural issues, except in glancing, passing ways.

The essential message of the prayers, political as they might be, is actually this moment of participation. Very real, physical participation, a moment when each individual is invited into the identificaiton by an action. Though this participation in this event, via the actual act of corporate prayer, the prayers will get to say to themselves that they themselves are these people, the ones who pray.

The message is actually not about abortion or homosexuality or opposition to health care, primarily. The message is: "We are the 'we' who pray."

That has political consequences, but they're secondary. For the people in the pews, they're probably even best understood as very secondary. They're the result, falling out of the identification. They're not the aim.

This identity-construction is actually happening already in the promotion of Sunday as this big prayer day, so it's quite visible. Evangelicals across American are being prompted to self-declare "I'm in," and reportedly more than a million have, and the website constantly updates the names of those who are "in." Every few seconds there's another message: "_______ from _______ is in!"

That "we," of course, comes to mean Christians, "believers," so that anyone not praying in this way can be understood as being excluded from the group. Call2Fall consistantly uses "Christians," "believers," and words like that as synonms for those who are participating in the event they've organized. The "we" also comes to have a historical identity, and to have a political point, as well, falling out of that act of identification and identity-construction.

This shouldn't be understood as being more political than it really is, though. It is political, but not in the direct, point-a-to-b way that it's so often misunderstood as being. Whatever the consequences actually turn out to be, the rhetoric will actually be about prayer, not politics, and talking about prayer will work to make these people think of themselves as a single entity, to build for themselves an identity.