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Thursday, August 30, 2007
(10:30 AM) | Stephen:
Prayer Doesn't Matter

The Slacktivist has an interesting post on prayer, noting the story of Wiley S. Drake, a Southern Baptist pastor who, acting in his capacity as a pastor and leader of a religious congregation, endorsed Mike Huckabee for President. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had a problem with this and filed a complaint with the IRS to review the tax-exempt status of Drake's congregation. It's not the first time that Drake has issued an endorsement like this.

If we were just dealing with a run-of-the-mill thing like an American Evangelical pastor deciding to ignore tax law, there wouldn't be much need to write about it. What makes this interesting is that Drake decided to respond to the complaint from Americans United by urging his congregation to pray that God would kill two men in that organization. He calls this "imprecatory prayer," and says that (King) David said that people who oppose the will of God would die and their "children be fatherless, and his wife a widow."

I suppose Drake hasn't read all the Psalms of lament in which David wonders why those who oppose God are so successful.

What's surprising to me is the tepid response from liberals about this, considering how dangerous many liberals feel American-style Christian Fundamentalism is becoming. Amanda at Pandagon, chosen because Bill Donohue has pointed out how "hateful" and "vicious*" she is, had this to say:
The underlying threat of violence aside, I must confess that I find Wiley’s overwrought language amusing. How small-minded and pathetic must you be to write like that, pretending you’re a cross between a video game wizard and some Old Testament patriarch?
That's fairly standard. "What a horrible thing to say, how amusing." This incident is now pretty much in the background. Drake will not be heard from again until he says something equally stupid/amusing, and he'll quickly fall into the background again. Because people just don't care when Christians talk about prayer.

No matter how religious this country may be, no matter how many people claim a belief in the Christian God, no matter how many people say that they pray regularly, the plain fact is that the vast majority of people don't believe it will "work," or that it has any "power." And I'm talking about Christians, let alone Atheists or adherents of other religions.

The whole issue of prayer in Christianity is peculiar. When Christians pray for a certain thing, such as a healing or that the Republicans win Congress and the White House, everyone steels themselves mentally and emotionally for when the prayer isn't answered. Or they accept the cop-out, bullshit approach that "no" is an answer, so God really does answer all prayers. For that to be true, a complete lack of response needs to be interpreted into answers, which are "no" for everything that we can't do ourselves and "yes" for when we pray for permission to do the things we've already decided we want to do.

But even though Christians are quite adept at accepting and explaining away unanswered prayer, they still react to a prayer or a request for prayer as the time to sit back and do nothing while waiting for God to miraculously intervene and get the thing done. If a parishioner's house burns down, the worst thing that a pastor can do is pray that God will provide the family with a place to live and replacements for the daily essentials that they lost. If that happens, the congregation will nod, say "amen," perhaps even weep softly due to the intense emotion that comes with really, really believing in prayer. And after the service they'll all go home while that family wonders where they will sleep that night, what clothes they will wear, what food they will eat as they wait for their insurance to get worked out.

But if the pastor gets up and tells everyone that the Smith family just got burned out of their house, and they need a place to stay, some clothes, food, all those essentials - or even better, if the pastor or someone gets on the phone and talks to people about it directly - then those needs will be met. And the prayers of the Smith family for shelter and food will be answered.

It's that dynamic which explains why no one took Drake very seriously with his ridiculous idea of "imprecatory" prayers. "Dear God, do this and that" is a signal for everyone to sit back and wait for it to happen or not, and then forget about it. If Drake had preached for the need of good Christians to hunt down staff members of Americans United and kill them, that would be a far different thing. He could be arrested for that. People would have been up in arms about it.

But all he did was direct his congregation to ask God to kill two men, and everyone knows that prayer doesn't matter.

*Bill Donohue is, of course, a repulsive boil upon the face of humanity.

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