I’m not one to demand “In God We Trust” be taken off coinage. I wouldn’t dream of excising from the Pledge of Allegiance “under God.” I don’t object in the least to presidents lighting the national Christmas tree or hosting a Chanukah post. At a funeral, it is perfectly appropriate for a public official to invoke religious themes or to quote from scripture. But did the Response Prayer Event, which featured Texas Gov. Rick Perry go too far?
In his comments at the event, Perry specifically disclaimed partisanship. He kept his comments generic: “His agenda is not a political agenda, his agenda is a salvation agenda. . . . He’s 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’s calling all Americans, of all walks of life, to seek him, to return to him, to experience his love and his grace and his acceptance, experience a fulfilled life regardless of the circumstances. I want you to join with me as I share his word with you.”
However, this is not to say there weren’t problems with the event.
For starters, Perry had previously insisted that the event welcomed persons of all faiths. But this is what he said on Saturday: “Like all of you, I love this country deeply, and thank you for being here. The only thing you love more is the living Christ.” Not so pluralistic after all.
Moreover, Perry didn’t merely show up. He organized and advertised the Response, using his prominence as a public official to promote the event, as a specifically Christian event. His proclamation on the governor’s Web site included this:
Gov. Rick Perry has proclaimed Saturday, Aug. 6th, as a Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation to seek God’s guidance and wisdom in addressing the challenges that face our communities, states and nation. He has invited governors across the country to join him on Aug. 6th to participate in The Response, a non-denominational, apolitical, Christian prayer meeting hosted by the American Family Association at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Gov. Perry also urged fellow governors to issue similar proclamations encouraging their constituents to pray that day for unity and righteousness for our states, nation and mankind. [Emphasis added.]
So to recap, his words at the event were restrained but not ecumenical. And his use of public office to promote the Christian event was, to me, inappropriate. The event, while scheduled last December, is still reflective of the man who would be president. Would he do this in the Oval Office? Does he not understand how many Americans might be offended? Is he lacking advice from a non-Texan perspective?
A a practical matter, the event suggests that Perry, a man of considerable confidence, is not accustomed to operating on a national, rather than Texan, stage. One of his key problems is the degree to which he can expand beyond a base of Christian conservative supporters. This will make the task somewhat more difficult.
However, the most unfortunate aspect to this entire matter is that he has given a club to the left-wing contingent that thinks religion should not be discussed in the public square and that reference to one’s faith as the basis for public-policy positions is somehow illegitimate. In that sense, Perry has done more harm than good to those who believe, that with appropriate modesty and restraint, religious values and viewpoints have a place in the great national debates of our time.