I will be celebrating this July 4th with my family in Michigan, where I’m about to head in a few hours.
I’ll be attending a parade on Monday and watching some fireworks with my niece and nephew, who are second-generation Americans. Since my niece was three, she’s boasted that she is an American. Now that she is a bit older (she turned five in June), she may finally start to understand what that really means.
Though she and the rest of my family belong to a minority ethnic and religious group, as Americans, we are all guaranteed the same rights as everyone else. It doesn’t matter whether someone is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or subscribes to no faith at all – we are all a part of this country.
That’s because our government has remained neutral on religion – making sure that all faith groups and none are welcome. It’s the government’s constitutional duty to ensure that no one feels like an outcast because of his or her belief system.
For the most part, our elected officials do a great job of upholding that principle. But every now and then, someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry comes along who just doesn’t seem to care how he makes Americans who don’t subscribe to his beliefs feel.
As you may recall, he’s sponsoring a fundamentalist Christian prayer rally at Reliant Stadium in Houston. He has proclaimed Aug. 6 to be an official day of prayer and fasting and is urging Christians to ask God for the “[h]ealing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal and robust way of life.”
The prayer rally is being organized by the American Family Association, and is dubbed “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis.” Perry has invited governors from every state to join him in promoting the observance. (So far, only Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Religious Right ally, has said he will attend.)
Initially, many observers thought that The Response wanted to use this event to convert non-Christians. MotherJones now reports that rally organizers have issued a statement making it clear that only Christians will be permitted to speak at the event.
In a message sent via email, The Response says that if representatives from other faiths were included, that would promote “idolatry.”
Allan Parker, one of Perry’s organizers, writes, “This is an explicitly Christian event because we are going to be praying to the one true God through His son, Jesus Christ. It would be idolatry of the worst sort for Christians to gather and invite false gods like Allah and Buddha and their false prophets to be with us at that time. Because we have religious liberty in this country, they are free to have events and pray to Buddha and Allah on their own. But this is time of prayer to the One True God through His son, Jesus Christ, who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.”
Of course, fundamentalist Christians -- like everyone else -- have the religious freedom to put on such a rally. It becomes a different story, though, when a government official specifically promotes one faith over another. What if this were a Muslim event – would the majority of Americans be comfortable with a governor sponsoring it?
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has openly criticized Perry for backing an event that excludes people of other faith groups and nonbelievers. He wrote a letter to the governor and directed a video toward him, as well.
Lynn also signed a letter drafted by Texas clergy who support church-state separation and religious pluralism and oppose this event.
Perry has recently responded to our concerns. Yesterday, we received a letter from his staff, in which they defend the governor’s involvement, claiming that our country has a long tradition of allowing government officials to promote prayer.
But this goes far beyond that. Perry initiated The Response, and he is effectively supporting the exclusion of many Americans solely because they worship “false gods.” Who gave him the right to decide which gods are false and which are not?
The Constitution certainly did not give him the right to do that in his role as a government official. In fact, the Constitution forbids him to favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. His behavior as a government official is unacceptable.
This July 4th, I plan to celebrate the America I have known – the one that has always welcomed my family. It’s too bad Gov. Perry can’t do the same.
Happy Independence Day!