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FIRST-PERSON: Religious free exercise applies to politicians, too


EDITOR’S NOTE: This column by SBC ethicist Richard Land first appeared in The Washington Post’s “On Faith” forum, where religious leaders from different backgrounds discuss matters of faith. This column appeared when the forum was discussing Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s participation in an Aug. 6 prayer event called, “The Response.” Some have tried to tie him to other participants. The question Land answered was: Should politicians be judged by the religious company they keep?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–We are taking a dangerous path when we begin disqualifying individuals for public office if they actually practice the faith they profess.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, like every other American citizen, is free to exercise his faith. Our Founding Fathers recognized the threat presented by a state that could at its discretion proscribe or advocate a particular faith. Their time-tested solution? The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Rick Perry is an evangelical Christian. It is out of that faith background that he is issuing a call for this solemn gathering. In fact, the idea behind this call reportedly germinated for over a year in the governor’s mind. This was far in advance of anyone mentioning the governor as a possible GOP candidate for president.

Furthermore, no government funds or facilities are being used in the “The Response” event. While the office of governor certainly gives Gov. Perry a more visible platform, his involvement in this call to prayer is as a private citizen. After all, Texas voters were well aware of his evangelical faith when they elected him.

In a pluralistic society Christians are as free as anyone else to practice their faith. Other faith traditions are just as free to either hold or not hold prayer events of their own.


Furthermore, Christians don’t require unanimity on every point to agree that coming together to pray for repentance and blessing upon a nation in crisis is both proper and prudent. Those participating in The Response have serious and justifiable concerns about the state of the culture and America’s very future.

As president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s moral and social concerns entity, I often work alongside others who agree on addressing an ethical issue, but whose faith principles may be somewhat at odds with mine. In fact, my denomination’s confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, addresses this matter: “Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth” (BFM, XV. The Christian and the Social Order.)

Interestingly, in 2008 the liberal press ridiculed any attempt to link then-presidential candidate Barack Obama with Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s outrageous and controversial views even though then Sen. Obama had been a member of Wright’s church for two decades and Wright had performed the Obama’s wedding ceremony. The Wright-Obama relationship was far more substantial than merely attending a prayer event with someone.

Any attempt to smear Perry with such a hypocritical broad brush comes up empty. His association with others who are involved in The Response, but who hold divergent views should not taint Perry any more than it should be presumed that President Obama agrees with the dissimilar views of many of those who attended the National Prayer Breakfast along with him last February.

Finally, at the very least The Response’s divergent group of endorsers demonstrates that evangelical Christians are a much less homogenous, monolithic group than the mainstream media has often asserted.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission