What Rick Perry could learn from ancient Islam

This week, a spokesman for Texas governor Rick Perry made it clear that he intends to enter the 2012 Presidential race. This announcement was made just two days after Governor Perry had presided over a prayer rally attended by 30,000 people at Reliant Stadium in Houston (and viewed online by an additional 80,000).   The prayer rally – called “The Response: A call to prayer for a nation in crisis -was initiated by Governor Perry, promoted using the sizable resources of his office, and included a thirteen minute prayer by the governor. Although the rally was supposed to be open to people from all faiths, the entire tone of the rally was rooted in a conservative Christian ethos, as evidenced by the rally website, which stated afterwards:

We believe we will see the fruit in our nation because young and old, many races, many denominations gathered in unity to worship the name of Jesus.

Not exactly something a Buddhist could endorse.

Coincidentally, during this same weekend I happened to be reading No god but God: The origins, evolution and future of Islam, beautifully written by Reza Aslan. It just so happened that as Rick Perry was using his political office to lead a massive prayer rally, I was reading about how the nascent Muslim community struggled to select their leader after the prophet Mohammed died in 632 C.E. The key question at the time was whether a relative of Mohammed (the prophet’s cousin, Ali) should be selected as Mohammed’s successor, or whether one of Mohammed’s close friends should be chosen. Ultimately, Ali was not selected, a decision that is explained in this way by Reza Aslan (text in parens added by me):

Ali was excluded because of a growing fear among the larger and wealthier clans..that allowing both prophethood and the Caliphate (the secular leadership) to rest in the hands of a single clan….would too greatly alter the balance of power in the Ummah (the Muslim community).  Furthermore, there seemed to be some anxiety among certain members of the community….that maintaining a prolonged hereditary leadership would blur the distinction between the religious authority of the Prophet and the secular authority of the Caliph.

In other words, people in an early 7th century Muslim community understood that there should be some degree of separation between “church” and state. Yet, in 21st century America, we are about to welcome a presidential candidate who has said:

At 27 years old, I knew that I’d been called to the ministry. I’ve just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was going to have. I still am. I truly believe with all my heart that God has put me in this place at this time to do His will.

There would be nothing wrong with this statement if it was coming from an evangelical preacher. However, Governor Perry made this statement just this May, at a fundraiser for the prayer rally. So what is Rick Perry? A politician or a pastor? Last I heard I’m living in a country where you aren’t supposed to be both, at least not at the same time.

I’m not the only one who is bothered by this. An Atheist group – the Freedom from Religion Foundation – attempted unsuccessfully to legally bar Gov. Perry from promoting the rally. According to an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Perry had not legally violated the constitutional separation of church and state because rally attendance was voluntary. The Op-Ed piece further notes that “Religion plays too important a part in many people’s lives to be denied a role in the public square.”

While I am no legal expert, I am a bit surprised that the voluntary nature of the rally was sufficient to exclude it from legal sanction. There is certainly legal precedent for considering ‘voluntary’ religious activity unconstitutional. Consider the case of McCollum v. the Board of Ed, in which eight year-old Terry McCollum could choose either to participate in religion classes at his public school or sit alone at a desk in the hallway (a treatment usually reserved for punishing students). Terry’s mother Vashti protested this situation, and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the court agreed 8-1 that the religion classes were unconstitutional.

Furthermore, while I agree that religion shouldn’t be ‘denied a role in the public square’, I think there are roles that are appropriate and there are those that are not. It is appropriate for a politician to articulate how faith influences his or her decision-making. We elect politicians based in some significant part based on an evaluation of their character and worldview, so understanding someone’s religious orientation is an important part of that evaluation.  Correlated to this, if someone is deeply religious, then it may be natural for him to mention God, Jesus or whoever they pray to as part of a political speech or comment.  It is of course natural as well for that person to be actively involved in his chosen religious institution. However, to my mind, what Rick Perry did in organizing this rally was a whole other ball of wax.  In this rally, Perry simultaneously played the role of religious leader and political leader. To me, that’s just plain wrong.

Given that I am myself a deeply religious person who spends most of my free time either writing about faith or volunteering at my church, you might be surprised that I have these opinions. But here’s why I feel so strongly about this: as someone who grew up Jewish, I know what it feels like to be a religious minority. I remember how it felt going to my high school boyfriend’s Episcopal church, and panicking as I realized everyone around me was going up to receive Communion. I remember how it felt when I went to my friend’s house for dinner and the family all bowed their heads and held hands to say Grace. These were situations I got myself into ‘voluntarily’ – yet I felt threatened and scared.

To my mind, a person in political power – particularly in an office as high as the governor of a state – should not be in the business of urging all of those under his purview to participate in a hybrid religious/political event that is based on the religious beliefs of the majority. It puts those of the minority viewpoint – whether that viewpoint is of a different faith, or no faith at all – in a perilous position.

Perry claims that God has called him to pursue the presidency. For the sake of our country, I hope God changes His mind.

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18 Responses to What Rick Perry could learn from ancient Islam

  1. Anonymous says:

    I feel less worried about Perry’s use of/identification with evangelical Protestantism, though I was raised in a version of it. That’s his base, and he’s appealing to it. We can’t expect him to be less of a Christian just because he’s running for office, I assume. On the other hand, if elected, use of office to erode the separation of church and state would be concerning, and so I guess that’s what I would want to know. Where does he feel the line should be drawn? What can he commit to not doing?
    By the way, I just want to say how much I am enjoying your blog. Your reading list, thoughtfulness, balance, candor, sincerity–all keep me checking in, and despite the fact that I find myself approaching God by somewhat different means. My reading list has works like Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to the Present Moment, Bede Griffith’s The Golden String, and Thomas Berry’s Dream of the World on it. Thanks for broadening my horizons. Harold

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hey Harold! So nice to hear from you! As I just wrote to Beja below – yes – my concern with Rick Perry is exactly the same as yours – that he doesn’t have a clear understanding of the separation of church and state. His actions and words make it pretty clear to me that he views himself as both a political and religious leader, and that simply violates the principles upon which our country is founded.

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m going to check out the books you mentioned too – I also have plans to tackle ‘Christianity: the first 3000 years’ which I remember you were reading last summer!

  2. Beja Keyser says:

    So, I just left you an response on your last post, and now after reading this:
    Do you wish to warn us like John of Patmos….”Church wake up”? Or do you mean wake up but not so much that you become involved in politics?
    The separation of church and State is a very good thing, but that shouldn’t mean the person involved in Politics shouldn’t draw on their Christian background.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hey Beja! I absolutely believe a person of faith SHOULD get involved in politics if that is his/her calling. I think I say as much above in the paragraph that starts with “Furthermore, while I agree that religion shouldn’t be ‘denied a role in the public square’”. BUT – if you are going into politics, that means you are going to be a political SECULAR leader, NOT a religious leader. The thing I find offensive in the rally that Rick Perry organized is that he used his clout as a political leader to organize a religious event. He simultaneously operated as a political and religious leader. And that to me is a violation of the separation of church and state in our country. Being a political leader whose faith influences their priorities and choices in the political realm is (or can be) a great thing. Being a political leader who simultaneously operates as a pastor is not. The fact that Perry views the political speeches he gives as speaking from a ‘large pulpit’ further indicates that he considers himself a religious leader as much as a political leader. That’s not OK. Is my point clearer now?

  3. Proud Kafir says:

    Islam does NOT separate Church and state so you should not compare Perry to anything ISLAMIC…Just because he said God is guiding him does not mean he thinks he is a prophet..I don’t care if he is atheist or Christian he is better than what we have now in the White House..

    http://www.shariah4America.com shows you want they want..and if you think SHARIA LAW is not a threat they already have a SHARIAH BOARD in Chicago..www.shariahboard.net…

    I am looking for a candidate that speaks ill of ISLAM at every turn myself..that means they are not afraid to speak the truth 🙂 BTW..I was married to a Shi’ite Moslem from Iran for more than 10 years I know the evils of Sharia law and they are in AMERICA to some extent already…so we need someone who will stop SHARIA LAW and ISLAM..Perry may not be the one since he is buds with Aga Khan putting ISLAM into TX schools…

    • wanda says:

      I agree with you 100 percent! WE need someone who will not endorse ISLAM IN THIS COUNTRY! GO to Hastings and buy a Quran or Koran whichever way they want to spell it. They are taught to lie to us. Remember one thing if you are not grounded in christianity this book can and will influence you to Islam! IT IS A LIE IN THE GREATEST SENSE. THIS IS NOTHING TO PLAY AROUND WITH. THEY HATE INFIDELS AND WANT TO TAKE OVER OUR COUNTRY! I BOUGHT ONE AND READ IT!

      • seeingfaith says:

        Dear Wanda,

        Could you please provide evidence for your statement that all Muslims are ‘taught to lie to us’? That’s a pretty bold statement to make about 1.5 billion people (one fifth of the world’s population). Some evidence for your claim that they ‘want to take over our country’ would also be helpful. I doubt that this goal is mentioned in the Koran since it was written over a millenia before the US was founded.

        I am also curious which translation of the Koran you have read. Based on my research I’ve learned that not all translations are equal – I have read that Muhammad Asad’s translation is particularly good because it provides commentary that helps put passages in context. For example, regarding passages in the Koran that are critical of infidels – these are references primarily to Arab pagans/polytheists with whom Muhammed was in conflict in his attempt to establish monotheism. I should note that according to Muhammed, the Koran and Islamic law, Jews and Christians are supposed to be treated as protected people (“dhimmi”) who should be allowed to practice their own religion in peace. Here’s a passage from the second Surah of the Koran that further emphasizes this tolerance for the other Abrahamic faiths:
        “Verily, those who have attained to faith (in this divine writ) as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve”.

        FYI – the Bible also contains harsh language towards pagans. Please read the ten commandments (Exodus 20:3-6) “you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me…”. Also please see Leviticus 26:14 “Penalties for disobedience” in which God threatens quite a range of harsh treatments for anyone who does not follow his rules (i.e., ‘infidels’). For the New Testament – please read the Book of Revelation for the Christian view on what will be done to anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus. Every sacred text attempts to convince its readers that it has the best answer and threatens those who don’t accept this answer. This doesn’t mean that modern-day Jews, or Christians, OR MUSLIMS, inherently hate people of other faiths and want to take over…

  4. Carla McCombs says:

    Wow. I would suggest being thankful that he has the guts to organize such a rally. Your question regarding sep . Of church and state is ridiculous in light if the criminal activity we currently have in the WH, much of which is clearly unconstitutional. In addition, the church/state argument has been far removed from what the framers intended. They were not concerned about a leader holding a prayer rally; read any of the original documents and you will find that they incorporated God, prayer and Judeo-Christian principles into all their activities and writings, all while holding office. Their intention with sep. of ch/st was to prevent the government from forcing religious conformation and taxation as rule. As a Christian who sees this country falling apart under a corrupt administration, I am very, very thankful that Rick Perry doesn’t want to leave God out, following the lead of the framers…

    • wanda says:

      CArla all it takes is someone thinking the way you do to open the door for muslims to come in and take over. Anyone that listens to all thei rhetoric about how good they are either are uninformed or anti christian. What category are you in? Anyone can CLAIM to be a christian BUT you have to look at what they are doing not what they PROFESS. WHEN i was a child there was an OLD SAYING THAT SAYS “Birds of a feather flock together” and it still holds true today. You can also say “look at their fruit’s ” that is Biblical and I for one know I will be judged for who i vote for on the premise on what they do and what they stand for . We are living in very fearful times with our economy tanking and we do not need to run ” like a chicken with its head cut off” because we are frightened. WE need to do our homework on each candidate and not bash someone for their opinion. YOU check it our!

      • seeingfaith says:

        Wanda, I am not even sure what you are saying here, but I will respond to one point you make. With your “birds of a feather flock together” comment you seem to be saying that if one person in a group is bad, then everyone in that group is bad. There is a very basic saying for what that attitude is. It’s bigotry. Please read my most recent post on this subject: http://wp.me/pW5tC-gH
        It’s also completely anti-Christian. Jesus reached out to individuals from groups who were the most despised in his society – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers (see Luke 5:12-13 and 27-32). He never rejected anyone just because of who they were. If you really are a Christian, I would hope you will follow His example.

  5. Carla McCombs says:

    Also, it is terribly naive to think we can learn something from Islam. It is not simply a religion, but a way of life including governance. It calls for the death of homosexuals and others who disagree with it’s teachings. The clip below features a prominent Imam in Nashville, TN who speaks openly about killing homosexuals. We would all be well-advised to learn the truth about Islam and it’s radical intent.
    Go to YouTube and search ” Losing Our Community”.

    • wanda says:

      Noone has the right to kill a homosexual so I guess you would make a good member of the muslim community. I am a christian and do not condone homosexuals but guess what God lloves them just like he LOVES you. Should a homosexual have the right to kill you because you are against them? No! YOU should pray that they come to know god before its too late because there is a hell and we all either make the choice to accept Jesus as our savior or we don’t We were given the right to make that choice from christianity BUT Islam forces you to join ONCE they get control and if you don’t you die. What religion do you want? A religion that teaches love and forgiveness or hatred and their choices only and by the way if you marry a muslim in sharia law he can kill you if he desires and noone will do a thing about it. I think you need to so some homework on this one hun you seem to make a lot of assumptions!

      • seeingfaith says:

        Again, I am having a hard time following your argument. FYI – I am strongly in support of gay rights and have written about how I view this position as completely consistent with my faith. See here: http://wp.me/pW5tC-9d

        It seems to me also that you are making your evaluations of Islam based on the most extreme Islamic states such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, or even Saudi Arabia which practices a very conservative strain of Islam (Wahhabism). In other majority Muslim states (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria) other faiths are able to practice their religion freely.

  6. seeingfaith says:

    Dear Carla and “Proud Kafir”,

    I am going to respond to both of your comments together, since you make some similar points. First, there are two points you both raise which I thought I’d addressed in my original post, but perhaps I didn’t explain as clearly as I could:

    1. My reference to Islam in this post is to ANCIENT Islam – and specifically – the process of picking a successor after the Prophet Mohammed died. As I wrote above, in that earliest Islamic period, there was real concern for separating political and religious power to some degree. Unfortunately the separation that they achieved in the immediate succession process did not last. As you both point out, modern Islam – at least certain manifestations of it such as that disturbing Shariah website- obviously is now the complete opposite of church/state separation. That was the whole reason I used this example from Islam’s early history – because it seemed rather ironic to me that a religion that has now become synonymous in many people’s minds with a radical religious political agenda was – at least in certain points in time and place – rather different. I am going to discuss Islam a bit more below, but first let me make my second clarification:

    2. As I also wrote to my friend Beja, I am NOT objecting to a political leader being religious. Note that I have raised no objections to any of the other leading Republican candidates, most of whom are also vocal about their religious beliefs. I may not personally agree with (some) of those beliefs, but if they want to voice those beliefs that’s totally fine – that’s part of the political process. If Rick Perry had simply attended a prayer rally organized by someone else, I would have had no problem. If (and when) he mentions God in his speeches, I have no problem. What I object to is that Rick Perry, as a political leader, used his political power (and resources paid by Texan taxpayers) to initiate, promote and lead a religious event – and a religious event that was very clearly oriented towards a specific Christian constituency. Furthermore, I am disturbed by some of his language that makes it sound as though he thinks of himself as both a political and religious leader. These views and actions seems to me to be a direct violation of both the objectives of the 1st amendment’s religion clauses and the ways in which the Supreme Court has interpreted those clauses over the course of the past century. Even Wikipedia makes it clear that the 1st amendment’s religion clauses have “generally been interpreted to prohibit 1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress, or 2) the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another.” Doesn’t a political leader organizing an explicitly Christian prayer rally qualify as ‘the U.S. government showing preference for one religion over another”? The only way I can see it not qualifying is that Perry is state leader, not a US Government leader – so perhaps that’s why he was able to get away with this. I also found this fascinating document online “Religious Expression in American Public Life: a Joint Statement of Current Law” that goes through all of these different scenarios of religious expression and what current law allows. Check it out and tell me what you think of item #31: http://www.adl.org/religious_freedom/WFU-Divinity-Joint-Statement.pdf . Carla – you yourself note that the founders wanted to prevent ‘forcing religious conformation’. Don’t you see how having a powerful politician actually organize, promote and lead a religious event could be viewed as taking advantage of one’s political power to at least ENCOURAGE religous conformation?

    Now, back to Islam. Both of you make blanket statements about Islam in your comments. Proud Kafir – you are hoping we will elect someone who will ‘Stop Islam’. Carla – you urge me to learn about ‘the truth” of Islam and its “radical intent”. Well, actually, I have been reading a number of books about Islam – the history, the theology, the political background. In addition to the book I mention in this post, I’ve particularly appreciated Karen Armstrong’s “The History of God” and “The Battle for God” – both of which provide a lot of background about Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I have also had the pleasure to meet an absolutely amazing Muslim woman recently (I wrote about this experience here): http://wp.me/pW5tC-9l . What has struck me both about my readings and my experience is that Islam is just as diverse a religion and a community as is Christianity, or Judaism, or any other religion. Yes, there are radical violent Muslims, but there are radical violent Christians too, and radical violent folks who are radical and violent for reasons having nothing to do with religion. And there are good, wonderful people in all these religious groups as well. However, I will say that often I see the greatest evils being committed by people who have decided to just dismiss an entire mass of people simply because of their religious affiliation. Proud Kafir – when you spoke of wanting a leader who would only speak ‘ill of Islam’ all I could think of is of a German leader in the last century who spoke ill of all Jews. My German Jewish family tree is missing a few branches thanks to that guy. So please, try to learn more about the diversity of the Muslim community, and try to get to know a few more Muslims in this country before you decide to ‘speak ill of all of them’. Oh, and by the way – did you realize that Muslims make up less than 1% of the US population? I am not really concerned that this tiny minority is somehow going to ‘take over’ our legal system, and find the furor over Shariah law to be nothing but poorly disguised xenophobia.

    Finally, Carla – can you be more specific about the ‘criminal activity’ that is taking place in the White House? I am just curious. I am aware of extraordinary failure to lead the country out of the economic crisis, and general political paralysis that has led to a downgrade of the US credit rating, but not criminal activity per se…..

    Thanks for your feedback and look forward to hearing from you.


    • wanda says:

      IF you follow the Bibles teachings YOU are not violent or radical so what do yu consider violent in a christian? ARe you talking about someone who professes to be a christian but does not live it? Thats a hypocrite so I think you got that mixes up yourself.

      • seeingfaith says:

        I think this is perhaps the only comment you’ve made with which I agree. You are right. Radical, violent, hate-filled people who judge entire other classes of people are not really Christians. However, these people CLAIM to be Christians, and there is a growing incidence of ‘Christian’ violence. See this article for more information about the rise of ‘Christian’ terrorism: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/2432/the_return_of_christian_terrorism________/
        As I noted above, it is possible to use selective passages of the Bible to justify this kind of violence. Most Christians recognize that this is a false interpretation of Christ’s message. The exact same thing is true with Muslims. A small percentage have used passages in the Koran to justify their violent acts. But most Muslims recognize that this is a false view of Mohammed’s message. I would recommend reading “Who Speaks for Islam: What a billion Muslims really think”. This shares the results of Gallup surveys with tens of thousands of Muslims around the world, in which it shows that only a very small percentage of Muslims condone violence. Also check out this Gallup survey of Muslim Americans: http://www.gallup.com/poll/148763/Muslim-Americans-No-Justification-Violence.aspx

  7. seeingfaith says:

    Hello all,

    Just for those of you who are further interested in what the law actually says on the subject of separation of church and state – I read more of this document today: http://www.adl.org/religious_freedom/WFU-Divinity-Joint-Statement.pdf which is a joint statement drafted by legal and religioius scholars in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League. The most relevant passage is actually towards the beginning and I quote it below:

    #7: May elected officials reference religious ideas and discuss their
    personal religious beliefs while operating in their official capacities?

    Elected officials must protect and defend the Constitution, including the constitutional obligation of the government to refrain from establishing religion. At the same time, elected officials are generally given substantial leeway to refer to religious ideas and communities and to talk about their personal beliefs, including their personal religious beliefs, while functioning in their official capacities. The constitutional line in this area is not always clear, but following are a few examples of speech that would fall on either side of that line. If a governor’s office conducted a
    speaking tour to give the governor the opportunity to urge individuals across the state to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, that would be understood as prohibited government expression promoting religion rather than protected personal expression. And, if a mayor were invited to give a speech at a public high school graduation, he or she could not preach a
    religious sermon to attendees. It is common, and constitutional, however, for a candidate for high public office to make a speech that references his or her personal religious beliefs and how those beliefs inform his or her worldview.”

    So the question is whether Gov. Perry’s initiation, promotion and leadership in an explicitly Christian prayer rally is analogous to the speaking tour example in this passage, or simply to ‘making a speech that references his personal religious beliefs’. I would say it is more like the speaking tour example, and thus inappropriate. I should note that the Anti-Defamation League has taken the same position.

  8. Pingback: Why I’m afraid of Fear Itself | Seeing Faith

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