Republicans and public prayer? Lisa Miller talks religion

Sep 22, 2011

According to a recent column by religion columnist Lisa Miller, Republicans are turning to prayer quite a bit in 2012.

"Prayer itself is not unusual," Miller writes. "Seventy-five percent of Americans pray to God at least weekly, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But voluminous public prayers by political candidates on policy specifics like health care reform and EPA rules seem less like expressions of personal faith than plain old politics."

From praying against health care reform to praying for Israel, is the GOP's emphasis on public prayer an expression of faith...or a political move?

Join the discussion Thursday September 22 at 12 p.m. ET to share your thoughts and ask questions about this week's column and other religion news.

I'm devout enough to go to church every Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and to say grace before I eat. But the prayers of politicians always strike me as the prayers of the Pharisees, strictly for show, to demonstrate how pious they are. Gov. Perry is parading his Christianity at the very same time that he is sending hundreds to death in the electric chair and cutting back support for the most vulnerable in his state. I can't swallow that kind of religion.

lots of people agree with you. in fact, opposition to the death penalty is the highest it's been since the 1960s in the U.S. -- and around the world, opposition is very high. the UN passed an anti-death penalty resolution last year to overwhelming response. America was one of the few countries that didn't sign.

Can you quickly explain to me the difference between an Evangelical and a standard run of the mill Christian or Catholic?

quickly? um... no. the label evangelical has been much debated, especially in the past several years. broadly speaking, an evangelical is a Christian who wants to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But in our public discourse, an evangelical has come to mean -- generalizing here -- a conservative white Christian who is anti-abortion and against gay-marriage. In recent years, especially young evangelicals have not liked this conservative connotations, nor have they liked the culture-wars role that certain evangels have played and there's a movement in that crowd to call themselves just "Christian." Labels are tough. People don't like them.

I really have never quite understood the need to pray everywhere, not being a very demonstrative sort of person. Prayer is private for me. If you want to pray, do so at home, in church, in your car, wherever. When you start making it into a pubic event, it loses its meaning. And please don't force others to join in, or feel coerced to do so. Don't expect others to somehow alter their lives to facilitate your imposition on the rest of us. How hard is that to understand, folks?

There's always been public prayer, right? And public prayer motivates people to do things -- sometimes great things, sometimes awful things. Its function, as I say in the story, is to sort people according to a world view or a perspective. And this can be extremely divisive.


How do politicians rationalize their professed beliefs in religion while consistently voting to cut assistance for the poorest among us and at the same time supporting tax avoidance for the filthy rich?

Well, what conservative christians say is that it's "un-biblical" to leave such enormous debt to our children and grandchildren. but I happen to agree with you. I think the Bible says to take care of the poor.


Why do you think that people will fall for the ploy?

I think that for certain people, people who have what the authors of American Grace call "high religiosity" and who live in the white evangelical world, this kind of talk is comforting because it's familiar. Some outsiders regard prayer talk as weird or irrational or even scary, but within that world, it's utterly normal and even good. (Forgive me for generalizing here.)  So with this rhetoric, these candidates are saying "I'm like you. I see the world the way you do."

My son, raised Jewish, went to a university in the deep South. He said that most public and private non-secular events started with a prayer. More often than not it started with "In Jesus' name we pray..." When my son noted to friends that it made him feel uncomfortable, they mostly registered surprise. To them, it was as natural as saying 'hello, how are you?" My son learned to roll with the punches and it actually brought him closer to the small Jewish community in the college town. The moral he learned was to respect others' traditions while embracing those of your own. An open mind goes a long way.

I agree with this completely. I am also Jewish, and have been to inumerable Church services in my life -- because of my job and because I'm interested. It is, actually, a revelation how non-threatening most religious worship services are and how much one can learn about one's neighbors. 

I have no objection in principle to religion having a role -- even a significant role -- in politics and the public domain. What I do find profoundly troubling is a religious outlook that deems itself divinely inspired and singularly correct. In this context, true believers think their political, cultural and moral convictions come directly from God and are thus irrefutable. Any opposing voices are therefore either deluded, unbelieving or evil. In this dynamic, what possible motivation could there be to compromise? It's not a question of 'You see things differently than I do, let's see if we can find common ground', but rather 'What I believe comes directly from God. How could anyone expect me to compromise God's teachings?' This dynamic, coupled with an American population that is terribly uneducated in history and the most basic facts of our political system, scares and depresses me.

I commend to you Barack Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February

He does an excellent job here, describing a faith that's personal and complicated and about humility and gratitude as much as it is about listening to what God wants.


Your column wrongly frames the issue of public prayer as though it's about faith in general. The statistic about three-quarters of Americans "praying to God" excludes those citizens who pray to deities other than the Christian one. Yes, the GOP's emphasis on public prayer is a political move, but much more than that. All prayer is inherently sectarian to some degree, so what the party is emphasizing is public *Christian* prayer. It's goal is to have American society and American culture treat that religion as the norm. Perry and Bachmann are quite explicit about favoring dominionism, but even the rest of their party wrongly treats religious neutrality as hostile to Christianity or even hostile to religion in general. There's nothing unconstitutional about politicians talking about the importance of their own faiths in their own lives. But when they equate a particular religion with patriotism, as Perry did at The Response, they send the message that people of other faiths are not really Americans. Publicly praying for or against particular laws excludes people of other religions from the conversation, again because prayer is sectarian. Of course people often have religious reasons for favoring or opposing such laws, but in a public conversation with fellow citizens from other religions, they have a civic responsibility to translate those reasons into secular ones.

I don't think it's wrong, because these candidates are selling themselves as people of faith, and they're using these public prayers as evidence of that faith. I agree that this conflation is problematic, and that's it's quite hard to know what a person running for president actually believes about God and prayer and the afterlife and such. But it's fair game to examine and critique their public prayers as evidence of faith.

In 1775, the Continental Congress called on the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation. President Lincoln declared a day of humiliation, prayer and fasting, to ask God for forgiveness and to end divisions of the Civil War. In all, there have been 136 national calls to prayer, humiliation, fasting and thanksgiving by the President of the United States. Members of Congress spontaneously broke into 'God Bless America' when they gathered on the steps of the Capitol in the first few hours after 9/11. President Obama has attended and spoken at every National Prayer Breakfast since becoming president. All presidential candidates make the rounds at major churches and religious organizations, especially those in the African-American community. Praying, speaking about current issues in religious terms, etc., is common throughout US history. MLK wasn't divisive because he used specifically religious language to animate his secular social and political vision. I'm not sure how then it's so easy to conclude that "prayer talk" is inherently "divisive." It seems to be a big part of who a lot of the American people are, and historically, it's played a large role in our national dialogue. I'm surprised you didn't mention the bipartisan history of public prayer and religious talk in the US in your column.

near the bottom of the column I say that religion divides and connects. The story is about how these candidates are using religion to divide. But yes, it also connects and MLK/Lincoln are of course the preeminent examples. But if you look at that famous Lincoln quote, from the Second Inaugural, you see that his attempt to unify -- both sides pray to to the same God --- comes out of anguish about the divisiveness.


How can we know if prayer is just a political strategy and not a governance tactic?

excellent question and one about which I'm thinking a lot.  Stay tuned to my column for further thoughts.

I take it to mean someone who takes the bible literally rather than metaphorically.

Traditionally, that's a more of a fundamentalist. Someone who beleives that Scripture is the inerrant word of God. Within evangelical circles there's lots and lots and lots of discussion about Biblical interpretation and where various churches stand on it.  It's a pretty broad group.

Isn't a lot of what we hear from politicians, especially right-wing politicians, just designed to let their constituents know they are like them?

I'd say that's true of all politicians.

May I just say, posters to this chat are very insightful and they have given me a lot to think about. :)


Good Afternoon - it seems to me that there's always been a kind of Millennialistic undercurrent in the US, which swells up during periods of instability and confusion. Do you think Republican leadership is trying to capitalize on the America's existential crisis, or are they trying to cure it?

Millennialism has been a strong undercurrent in American Christianity for a long, long time. William Miller led a bunch of Christians to a mountaintop in the mid-19th century to wait for the end of the world. I do think that some of the religious rhetoric you hear now  capitalizes on milliennialist expectations. 

This, from commenter Mavenuniversity: As a Democrat who says grace (albeit after meals rather than before), I take some exception with St. Francis of Assisi's view. I believe in praying for peace in the world, although I don't dictate to God how to get there. When politicians pray for ending health-care reform or weakening the EPA, the problem runs deeper than political grandstanding: They're trying to tell the Almighty how to do things. In my book, that's idolatry.

Politicians tend to be pragmatists more than they are idealists. In an interview for another story last week, Gordon College president Michael Lindsay said that the difference in perspectives betweeen a politician and his or her pastor is much wider than most people expect.

Being in my 20's, I don't remember a time when Republicans didn't lay claim to Christianity. Growing up, there was a part of me that felt like I was a bad Christian because I was a liberal. Only now, I realize how stupid it is that we have politicians trying to dictate what makes a good Christian. The biggest problem I have with the GOP's public prayer is that it doesn't represent all religions. it doesn't even represent all Christians. Christianity is diverse enough that a politician saying he/she is representing a Christian ideal is insane.

Well, this is part of the point. I believe these republican politicians are trying to court a /certain kind/ of christian -- probably not you -- with this kind of talk, knowing as they do that these christians are an important bloc in the upcoming primaries. Articulating a broader or more nuanced view would probably not be as effective a political maneuver.

You quoted a stat from American Grace in your piece today - about how many are Reps and how many are Dems. I'm curious- could you share what percentage of the population says grace every day? That overall stat would be helpful in understanding the significance. Thanks

I left my copy of "Amazing Grace" at home, but it's excellent and filled with data and surveys and analysis about the American religious experience and the way it plays in society, culture, politics. I keep it on my desk at all times.


My argument against public prayer is simple: it's not inclusive. Most "public prayer," as a previous commenter noted, is actually Protestant and Christian. Where are the Wiccans, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Jews in "public" prayer?  And can you explain to me why prayer is banned in schools (not that I disagree with this), but there's an official Congressional chaplain?

I'm going to answer your question in a cynical way. Most Americans -- right or wrong -- want a President who's Christian but a generic enough kind of Christian so that he/she isn't threatening -- ie, Ronald Reagan. They emphatically don't want an atheist president or a Muslim president. So Christian prayer by a presidential candidate is, on some level, expected.

On a personal note, I don't need all public prayer to be inclusive. I do need all different religious groups to be able to pray in public. There's a difference.

Thank you poster. You literally restored my faith in Christianity! All we hear are the extreme haters and I was bowled over to know there are people like you who have faith, AND see the hypocricy of the self-promoting religious leaders. Wow.

There are many, many, many people of faith who are not "haters." Most, I'd say. It's good to have this kind of conversation.

I can't think of anything less relevant to the health of our nation.

You would find a lot of people who disagree with you -- that's the point of the story. These political candidates know that daily piety matters to a huge percentage of Americans. Church attendance is declining in the U.S. but still, about 40 pc of Americans go to church every Sunday.

As an atheist, I see a huge contradiction between public Christian prayer by those such as Perry and the same peoples' condemnation of Islam and Muslims. When pointed out, they reply that Islam is false and Muslims are terrorists seeking to establish a Caliphate, convert us or kill us, blah, blah, blah, blah. Where are the evangelical leaders condemning this hypocrisy?

One aspect of conservative doctrine -- whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish -- is that believers think they're on the "right" path and everyone else is on the "wrong" path. This belief in the U.S. is actually kind of squishy -- even people who are taught that Jesus is the only way privately believe or hope that their Jewish or Buddhist or atheist friends have a chance of getting into heaven. But in public, conservative religious and political leaders convey this "rightness" as a matter of course.

Depends on what you call public prayer. Christians saying a prayer at their Christmas Carol festival in the park? Fine, because people are free to participate or not. Saying God and Jesus in the prayer at work when you work for a local government? Wrong! Because I will be ostracized if I do not chant the words God and Jesus along with them, I am not free (because of financial ropes) to not participate.

Agree that there are many fascinating stories/wrinkles here.

Plenty of criminals say grace every day and plenty of athiests do great deeds. Saying grace is not an indicator of what type of person one is.

Absolutely agree. But in a political season we look for markers of "character" and "values" and prayer is one of those markers.

Thanks for chatting everyone. See you same time, same place, next week. It's Rosh Hashana, so Happy New Year!

And if you have comments or suggestions for me, find me on Facebook.


In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
Recent Chats
  • Next: