The much-anticipated day of prayer headlined by Governor Rick Perry’, “The Response,” took place this past Saturday, August 6th. Leading up to the event, many groups including Interfaith Alliance expressed concerns about the possibility Gov. Perry was using his political power (and government funds) to endorse a particular denomination of Christianity over other religions practiced in America. There was also reason to be suspicious that he was exhibiting his religious devotion as means to appeal a particular voting base for the sake of a possible presidential campaign (It is expected he will announce his bid for the Presidency this week).
As Interfaith Alliance President Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy pointed out in his statement about the event, “Governor Perry has every right to pray or fast in private or with others. However, when he uses his public office in any way to promote a sectarian event, he has crossed a line that the framers of our Constitution did not want crossed for the good of both religion and government.”
A number of groups cautioned Gov. Perry about mixing his personal religious convictions with his job as politician in a nation that is open to all beliefs. Our friends at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the ACLU also aired their concerns with the Governor’s involvement in the event and held a counter-rally in Texas that same weekend.
Upon watching his prayer offered at the event, it became clear to me that Gov. Perry had chosen his words carefully to make it difficult to accuse him of inappropriately mixing religion and politics. His remarks were focused on religion, not politics, and he made a point of saying “[God is] a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party, or for that matter, he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any man-made institutions.” He certainly avoided making any direct political statements in his prayer.
Despite this carefulness, there are problems with Gov. Perry’s involvement in this day of prayer that can’t be denied. Even though the focus was not on his own political agenda, Gov. Perry led the event as the Governor of Texas. He was not a minister leading his congregation in prayer; he was calling on all of America from the Governor’s bully pulpit. Additionally, “the Response” was exclusively Christian, recognizing only the divinity and authority of Jesus Christ.
When he originally called for this event, Gov. Perry said that America suffered from “moral relativism.” In addressing an issue of morality through an exclusively Christian prayer service, he defined morality as Christianity, alienating followers of other religions and belief systems. Furthermore, the event was organized and financed in large part by the American Family Association, a bastion of the Religious Right which has been classified as an antigay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The First Amendment of the Constitution protects both freedom of speech and freedom of religion, values that we continue to hold dear. Gov. Perry has a right, just as every American does, to express the religious beliefs of his choosing. However, the First Amendment also prohibits the Establishment of religion by our government. By using his public office to endorse and participate in an exclusively Christian service to address problems that face America, Gov. Perry dangerously mixes politics and religion, threatening the integrity of both the government and religion.