Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy. — Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce’s words kept going through my head as I looked around at the willful self-deception going on at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Thousands of Christians who were called to worship by Gov. Rick Perry wailed, writhed, prayed, cried and generally made embarrassing spectacles of themselves.
I had gone into the stadium Saturday (which was air-conditioned) to briefly escape the 107 degree heat index outside where we were protesting the governor’s prayer rally, to freshen up and get some lunch. Lo and behold, I discovered huge lines at concession stands formed by those pious citizens summoned by their governor “to fast and pray.” As I waited in line, I couldn’t help noticing the looks of confusion, even distress, on the faces of many small children dragged to this event by devout parents. It must be scary to be so little and vulnerable, and see your folks and so many grownups acting drunk with religion.
Dan and I were proud to be part of the stalwarts out protesting in Houston’s deadly heat against Gov. Perry’s abuse of power to initiate, promote and attend the Aug. 6 Christian evangelical prayer rally, co-organized with Perry by The Response (part of the American Family Association) at Reliant Stadium. Accompanying us was one of our very wonderful summer legal interns, Taylor Myers. Taylor’s parents, who are FFRF members, drove from a vacation in New Orleans to join their daughter in this sweltering but important protest.
We joined a committed throng of Texas protesters — FFRF’ers, LGBTQ supporters, a few liberal religionists. Many personally thanked FFRF for being the only national group represented among the outdoor protests.
FFRF had pulled out the stops. Because we were locked out of the billboard market if we wanted to carry a message critical of Perry’s involvement in the prayer rally, FFRF had commissioned an aerial banner, which said: GOV – KEEP STATE/CHURCH SEPARATE. FFRF.ORG. We had also contracted for a colorful mobile billboard, saying, “Beware Prayer by Pious Politicians — Get off your knees and get to work!” The plane and mobile billboard circulated all day.
Protesting was all we had left. FFRF had gone to federal court to try to stop Perry’s robocalls and the use of his gubernatorial name, title, video and letter of invitation at The Response website. Drawing one of the most conservative federal judges (a recent Bush appointee), FFRF was thrown out of court on “standing” in late July. The judge claimed our nonreligious members had not been injured by gubernatorial injunctions to set aside Aug. 6 as a “day of prayer and fasting for our nation’s responses,” or Perry’s invitations to them to attend an all-day prayer rally for that purpose (along with members of the American Family Association).
The evening before the rally we met with 70 delightful Houston-area FFRF members at the Black Labrador Restaurant for our own little rebellious “feasting and non-prayer” dinner. Our dinner party was called in part to honor our five area plaintiffs, but also “in solidarity” with Texas freethinkers and state/church advocates who have been so besieged by Perry’s 2-month-long prayer advocacy. We feasted, not fasted, partied and played, not prayed, and kept our eyes wide open.
I’ve never heard a more enthusiastic “moment of bedlam,” FFRF’s answer to moments of prayer or silence, than the one that opened the Houston dinner party! Dan gave a mellow musical concert at the piano, with a short repertoire of some of his songs, including “Beware of Dogma,” “Nothing Fails Like Prayer,” Wallace MacRae’s “Reincarnation” (an irreverent cowpoke song), “None of the Above,” and “Battle of Church and State.” Dan debuted his new country song, “Get Off your Knees and Get to Work,” dedicated to “Rip van Perry-winkle, who didn’t oversleep 30 but 2030 years.” Dan’s lines got a big laugh:
Prayer won’t fix the budget —
Hope can’t pay the bill —
Faith will never nudge it —
But taxing churches will.
The caption on screens inside the stadium identified Perry without his gubernatorial title. He was “Rick Perry, Austin, Texas,” not “Gov. Perry.” I also noticed he did not read his proclamation calling Aug. 6 a day for prayer and fasting (which had actually been proclaimed on June 6). These concessions did reflect changes made because of FFRF’s lawsuit, which sought to restrain Perry from presenting the proclamation at the rally in his official capacity as governor.
But it was a depressing sight to see so many “sheeple” assembled, whooping and clapping as pastors talked about the need to fight “demons.” Dan was struck by how pathetic it was to see so many American citizens prostrate themselves as sinful slaves under the thumb of a supernatural master. He was also impressed how effectively the organizers used stupefying Christian rock to hypnotize attendees.
Perry’s remarks (which can be read here), revealed exactly how inappropriate it was for Perry to misuse the imprimatur and privileges of his civil office to promote a divisive and exclusionary Christian evangelical event. He clasped his hands ostentaciously in a prayer pose, recited Old and New Testament verses, and pandered away. “The only thing you love more is the living Christ,” he said to applause, hoots and hollers. Perry said that Jesus “he who knew no sin, gave his life in ransom for many.” “This loving and perfect God is also a personal God.” He invited everyone to join him in praying to Jesus. While Perry claimed “his agenda is not a political agenda, it is a salvation agenda,” it was impossible to witness that event without recognizing the political opportunism.
Perry’s integral role in calling and promoting this Christian event create such bad precedent. It is more important than ever that we insist that government and religion be kept separate from politics and government, and that elected officials promote our godless constitution, not their personal religious views.