Prayer Day Politics: In Louisiana, Religion And Government Mix Like Oil And Water

June 21st, 2010
By Rob Boston
Government-Sponsored Religion, Religion in Public Life

I understand why people living along the Gulf Coast are frustrated. The BP oil spill is an unmitigated environmental disaster, with as much as 2.5 million gallons of oil pouring into the region every day.

What’s especially frustrating is that, despite all of our modern technology and know-how, we don’t seem to be able to plug the well. The oil just keeps gushing forth.

Various proposals have been floated, but one of the most recent responses from the Louisiana Senate raised a host of different problems: designation of an official day of prayer.

State Sen. Robert Adley (R-Benton) says human attempts to resolve the crisis have failed, so it’s time for government to call on divine intervention.

“Thus far efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail,” Adley said. “It is clearly time for a miracle for us.”

The resolution, which passed unanimously, named last Sunday as a statewide day of prayer in Louisiana and called on people of all religions “to pray for an end to this environmental emergency, sparing us all from the destruction of both culture and livelihood.”

I should point out that Louisiana Senators are not the only government officials calling for prayer these days. President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address on the spill last week contained a good amount of God talk as well.

Obama ended his speech with an anecdote about how, even in the middle of this disaster, fishermen in the Gulf still gathered with their boats for an annual ritual knowing as the Blessing of the Fleet.

“The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face,” Obama said. “This nation has known hard times before, and we will surely know them again. What sees us through – what has always seen us through – is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it.”

He continued, “Tonight, we pray for that courage. We pray for the people of the Gulf. And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.”

It’s not unusual that many Americans would turn to prayer during a time of crisis. I suspect many Americans were praying about the situation in the Gulf long before the Louisiana Senate and Obama recommended it. I suspect they didn’t need any government official to tell them to do it.

Prayer is not the problem; the problem comes from those promoting it. In this case, the recommendation is coming from the wrong source.

I would fully expect the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans or the Louisiana Council of Churches to call on people to pray during a disaster like this. (In fact, the Archdiocese beat the state Senate to the punch by more than a month.)

A call to prayer should always come from a religious authority, not a government body. While many people may see such calls as innocuous, they are not. When government officials endorse prayer, they are putting their stamp of approval on a certain type of religious expression – usually the one held by the majority. These officials are also making statements about God and religion: that God exists, that God is willing to intervene in human affairs, that miracles are possible.

Not all religions accept these assumptions. Thus, a government-backed call for prayer is really a way for the state to take sides in a theological debate. That should never happen.

People have argued for centuries about the nature of God. The discussion has been quite heated, sometimes erupting in violence. No one expects that to happen in Louisiana. Instead, the prayer day, which has already come and gone, will be seen as just another attempt by the government to enlist religion as a prop for its goals. Even if those goals are laudable, the government has no right co-opting religion to achieve them.

Americans are quite capable of deciding when (or whether) to pray. If they need guidance in this area, the proper agents to provide that are America’s clergy – not the political leaders of Louisiana or any other state.

P.S. It’s worth remembering that Thomas Jefferson opposed government-sanctioned prayer days. Explaining his thinking in an 1808 letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller, Jefferson said it well: “[E]very one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”

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