The Response: the political consequences
Wed August 3, 2011 10:55 am

I grew up in a time when every football game, high school or college, started with a prayer to which nobody paid any attention or suggested that it violated the separation of church and state. The spectacle of sectarian public prayer did make me uncomfortable, less because it was exclusionary than because it was an involuntary public ritual.

The response to The Response, Governor Perry's prayer event, has generated a lot of protests. This is from today's Chronicle:

Three days before The Response, the Reliant Stadium prayer event Gov. Rick Perry initiated two months ago, the response has been spirited among those objecting to the governor's participation.

On Tuesday, more than 50 Houston-area religious and community leaders disseminated a signed statement drafted by the Anti-Defamation League expressing "deep concern" about a prayer rally "not open to all faiths," while the Houston GLBT Political Caucus and related organizations announced a Friday rally at Tranquility Park to protest the event. The groups that represent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals accused the American Family Association and other sponsors of the prayer event of hatred toward the GLBT community.

The ADL statement followed a June letter from the Houston Clergy Council that criticized the governor for excluding non-Christians, partnering with an anti-gay group and blurring boundaries between church and state.

My feelings about public-prayer events haven't changed, but I'm intrigued by the Anti-Defamation League's statement, quoted above, that the prayer rally isn't open to people of all faiths. How are the organizers going to restrict the participants to Christians? Are they going to ask everyone who comes through the turnstiles to prove their Christian bona fides? Of course not.

Nor do I think that the rally "blurs the line between church and state." The line between church and state is very clear. It's the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  The governor of Texas holding a Christian prayer meeting is not an establishment of religion. It's just a bad idea that isn't going to work out very well. Attendance is going to fall far short of expectations and the noise generated by Perry's critics is going to get as much media attention as the prayer rally itself. This is what happens when you think the rest of the country has the same civic and religious values as Texas.

This could have had a much different ending. Perry could have made the event nondenominational. He could have invited people and clergy of all faiths. But he elected to make it exclusionary--and not just exclusionary, but reflective of preachers who have expressed some of the most extreme religious views in Christiandom.

Another misjudgment was the public invitation to all of his fellow governors. The right way to do this was to feel out the other governors first and announce the acceptances later, when you know who is coming. Now, with only one acceptance--Sam Brownback, of Kansas, and he has said he is going on vacation this weekend--the event looks like an utter failure.

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