In his new book, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf uses the phrase “functional reduction”–clunky but apt–to describe what happens when practitioners of prophetic traditions use “hollowed out” religious language to promote their own desired ends.
Texas governor Rick Perry’s recent event in Houston, a “call to prayer for a nation in crisis,” is a good example of what Volf observes: the folly (and danger) of seeking parochial ends by appealing to a provincial god.
Last week, in anticipation of Perry’s rally, Presbyterian pastor (and Texan) Jim Rigby noted “Five Scriptures You won’t Hear at Rick Perry’s Prayer Event.” (The first one: “Don’t make a show of prayer” from Matthew 5:5-6). In a similar spirit, here are five reasons why, from a Christian perspective that eschews the reduction of the gospel to the role of propping up the aims of the nation-state, Rick Perry’s prayer rally at Reliant Stadium was a Texas-sized bad idea:
One: The confusion it perpetuates (and exploits) between the Church and America. The Church is a borderless body. While all Christians live somewhere, national identities and allegiances are trumped by membership in a transglobal, transhistorical ekklesia in which no nation, tribe, or tongue is privileged over any other. A Christian can love being an American, but she should never presume that God is one.
Two: The God whom Christians pray to is not a vague, benevolent being nor a punitive warrior-god, but is known through the history of the Jews and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. An event like Perry’s (and also the much-beloved National Day of Prayer) can’t make sense of a first-century crucified rabbi whose non-violent teachings and way of life were an affront to nationalistic pride and state power.
Three: The Church’s liturgy trains us, in its “Prayers of the People,” to pray regularly for all
nations, all leaders, all peoples. We also pray for our local communities and for our country. In The Book of Common Prayer, for example, generations of Episcopalians have prayed every Sunday for the President of the United States–by name. (Perry prayed for the President on Saturday but didn’t–couldn’t/wouldn’t–say his name). Such prayers are a routine part of the formation of a people over time. To set aside a special “rally” to tribalize these prayers–to shrink their scope and limit their efficacy–is to break faith with the basic baptismal promise to first be loyal to the Church which, according to United Methodism, “God has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.”
Four: Christians recognize that many of the neighbors we are called to love are people of other faiths. We have theological disagreements with them; we are not, deep down, “all the same.” But those disagreements are not grounds for exclusion or suspicion (or conversion); they are occasions for mutual engagement and edification. Perry’s rally did nothing to communicate a genuine, generous spirit of openness toward Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists–Americans of other religious traditions.
Five: It’s an established truth that seems to need regular repeating: The founders of the republic did not endorse a view of America as a “Christian nation.” While Witherspoon, Henry, and Jay ascribed to the tenets of orthodox Christianity, their more important counterparts–Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Monroe–emphatically did not. They were privileged, propertied “men of reason”–classic deists, who, as Daniel Boorstin once said, “found in God what they most admired in men.”
Promoting and participating in an event like Perry’s Saturday prayer rally unwittingly confuses
flag and cross: narrow state allegiance with loyalty to Christ and his global body. Christians pledge allegiance to the suffering God of the cross, not to a tribal deity who thinks America is special.
This God, we know from Scripture, is more likely to meet us in the hurting people and lost causes on the wrong side of town than in halls of power or Texas football stadiums.