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Calling on divine intervention

BY SHAY O'REILLY | JUNE 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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“There is a crisis in America,” the man in the video says, standing before a desaturated country field, his eyes stern. “And not just one.” The weary people, lit starkly in their homes and abandoned lots, list their demons: economic collapse.

Violence. Abuse. Natural disasters. Terrorism.

This onset of darkness demands a response, the video says. America’s knees are buckling for a reason: The only way out of our catastrophic predicament is to pray and fast in a national display of penitence on Aug. 6.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has invited all 50 governors — and every Christian American — to “The Response,” asking for Jesus’ guidance and salvation from the nigh-apocalyptic present. Immediately the call received national attention: Was it a deluded, desperate cry for help? A cynical political ploy?

Without assuming too much about Perry’s motives, the answer, I think, is “neither.” But a call to national prayer led by a politician with national prominence is worrying because it represents an uncomfortable confluence of the sacramental and the political, even if it violates no part of our Constitution.

Religious beliefs necessarily inform political beliefs. The challenge for politicians, scholars, justices, and, yes, the public, is to delineate appropriate versus inappropriate levels of influence.

It’s easy to forget that religion was not always such a public matter. In his recent *Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics*, rhetorician Brian T. Kaylor traced the development of religious rhetoric in the public sphere to Jimmy Carter, whose public confessions of faith helped him garner the religious vote over the more reticent Gerald Ford. Candidates ever since have confessed their faith, affirmed it in the public eye, and cited it as a foundation for their political views.

Kaylor has written on his blog that the rally could give Perry a boost in the GOP primary season, if he decides to toss in his hat. But this event’s importance stretches beyond Perry’s campaign. It demonstrates a serious shift in the relationship between American politics and religion: Civil religion and traditional religion are no longer immediately distinguishable.

America is God’s chosen country, the thinking goes. Jim DeMint, speaking at the Conservative Principles Conference in March, asserted that economic conservatism only works if it is supported by religious values and social conservatism. The political platform not only is based on a belief in God, but it requires it; America, said Herman Cain, is a country based in Christianity. Without that cornerstone, our society falls apart.

So why not pray to Jesus for a miracle that gets the country back on its feet? For those who view the religious and political lives of this country as intrinsically intertwined, this response only make sense.

But, counter to the statement on the website, it’s not the nation that is coming together on Aug. 6 to pray and fast. It’s just the Christians moved and inspired by Perry and the event’s sponsor, the American Family Association.

The non-Christians (about 21 percent of the population in 2007) will sit at home, watching or listening as their political leaders join others in invoking a God they don’t believe in, in a manner they don’t understand. They are excluded from the salvation of their country.

Rick Perry’s prayer session as a civil, governmental event (even without public funding) isn’t just there to save America; it’s to take back the image of America as a Christian nation. It is the disturbing final replacement of America’s civil religion with Christianity.

If private prayer and reconnection with the first principles of their faith helps Perry or Gov. Terry Branstad to govern, they’re welcome to it. But the public response to our crisis can’t be to call for one particular divine intervention.

Instead, our response should be to roll up our sleeves and illuminate the all-consuming dark.
As Americans, not just Christians.


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