I've been thinking for a couple of weeks about the prayer rally in Houston a few weeks back. The rally featured the now leading Republican candidate and current Texas governor Rick Perry, among others. It was sponsored by the American Family Association.
But really this blog isn't about Rick Perry (I'm still formulating opinions on whether or not the event was primarily politically motivated) or AFA (whose organizational practices and techniques I usually do not care for). It's about this question: what should be okay and what should be out of bounds for a political leader when it comes to expressing their faith?
There are several levels to this conversation.
First, at the level of USAmerican politics, there is virtually no way to separate a candidate's political and religious views, particularly a presidential candidate. His or her religious practices are going to be interpreted by media and by the public as having political implications. This is a given, and right or wrong we're not going to change it. And the biases of those media or people determines how they view the religious expression. President Clinton attended church far more frequently than President Reagan, but that didn't help him with religious conservatives. Political opponents seem to always interpret their adversary's words and deeds in the worst light possible. So a rally calling Christians to prayer is seen as a ploy to win the vote of the religious conservative. But just because this happens does not mean that candidates should not express their faith in ways they see fit.
Second, at the level of USAmerican religious expression, the vast majority of the religious expressions of public leaders are not the same as biblical Christianity. There is, I'm not the first to point out, an American religion. It sounds like biblical language, but the god of that religion is always on the side of the US. I've written about that in previous posts, and I confess my own bias here, because I do not believe any Christian should be equating the USAmerican public religion with biblical Christianity. The US is not nor has it ever been a Christian nation, chosen by God, in the way the the Hebrews of the Old Testament were. I want to passionately follow the God of the Bible, the God revealed in human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That God, in my opinion, is not impressed with statements of "God bless America" or overt references to biblical themes in political speeches (or in athletes scoring touchdowns, but that's a different soapbox of mine). I don't believe he cares for statements in support of "traditional marriage" from people who have been divorced multiple times, unless they're confessing their own sin. And I am convinced he does not call us to demonize those with whom we disagree, calling them or their actions disparaging names solely on the basis of our disagreement. The followers of Jesus who will impact the world in the most significant ways in the 21st century will be those who (1) understand the US and the world are pluralistic places where people should respect each other regardless of their differences, understanding that true faith can't be faked or coerced, and (2) who live out in word and action the countercultural lifestyle we are called to by Jesus himself.
Finally, I want to look at the level of the body of Christ itself, at life among those who live in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. There is a serious need for prophetic leadership today. The average believer is looking for someone who can--with all their flaws--authentically live out the teachings of Jesus. We need pastors and institutional leaders who do this. But we also need political leaders who do this. Just like we need plumbers and builders and bankers and [fill in the blank with any job here] who do this. Political candidates should not check their faith when they enter a race. A candidate who says their faith (whether Mormon, Buddhist, B'hai or atheistic humanism, or anything in between) does not inform their politics is not worth voting for. What we believe is a large determiner of who we are and how we live.
Did Rick Perry participate in the prayer rally primarily for prayer or primarily for political gain? I have no idea. But I do know that we are in desperate need of leaders in all facets of life who are passionately seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and calling us to do the same.