Prayer in the news

I started thinking about this yesterday, when I read in the Sun-Sentinel about how dozens of religious groups gathered to pray at Dunbar Village in West Palm Beach in response to the horrible violence that has taken place in that housing project. This was brought on (the cynical side of me says) by the media coverage of the horrible gang rape for which 4 people have already been arrested.

But the violence in Dunbar Village is nothing new. A report issued this year by Morgan Quitno Press ranked West Palm Beach as the 14th most dangerous area in the country. According to the Sun-Sentinel, police were called to Dunbar Village 664 times during a recent 12 month period. It would be easy to be flip about this and ask why it took this particular gang rape to get these religious groups interested enough to come and ask their various Gods to look in on the matter, and I was planning on doing just that--wondering if these people might be more effective if instead of spending an afternoon in public prayer, they lobbied their local and state authorities to spend more on police protection, or to get rid of the housing project altogether and relocate the residents into middle income neighborhoods--and then I watched the Democratic candidates debate on ABC this morning and I heard this question.

My question is to understand each candidates' view of a personal God. Do they believe that through the power of prayer disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?

Thank you, Seth Ford of South Jordan Utah for providing the dumbest question in presidential politics since "boxers or briefs?"

As you might expect, most candidates danced around the question. Clinton and Dodd were the first to go, and both basically said that they prayed and relied on God for guidance, etc. Fine--I'm an atheist, but I can certainly imagine wanting to look into the universe when faced with making decisions that affect millions, if not billions of human beings. But they didn't answer the question.

John Edwards did, and he was the third to speak. I wish I had a link to the transcript--I'm sure it will be available--but he's at the tail end of the clip ABC News has up right now. He began by saying that he prays (as every candidate but Gravel and Kucinich did), but then said, in a very straightforward way "but the answer to the question is no," and he finished by saying "I don't think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer." That's an eminently sensible answer, because if that were possible, bad things wouldn't happen. People pray for that sort of thing all the time, to no discernible effect.

And that's a good thing in my book, because along with the people praying to keep bad things from happening to them, you also have people praying for bad things to happen to people they don't like.
Instead of responding to Americans United’s concern of illegal activity, Drake issued yesterday afternoon a plea to his supporters to join in “imprecatory prayers” (curses) every morning for Americans United and its staff.

“In light of the recent attack from the ememies (sic) of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer,” Drake said, in an Aug. 14 press statement issued from the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. “Especially against Americans United for Seperation (sic) of Church and State.”

Drake singled out two Americans United staff members whose names appeared as contacts on the press release. The pastor’s missive said the imprecatory prayers should “specifically target” Americans United Communications Director Joe Conn or Communications Associate Jeremy Leaming.

In a section of his press release called “How To Pray,” Drake includes a long list of biblical citations that call on God to smite enemies. For example, the alleged enemies of God “shall be judged,” “condemned,” and “his days be few….” Additionally, supporters should pray that the enemy’s “children be fatherless, and his wife a widow,” and “his children be continually vagabonds, and beg; let them seek bread also out of their desolate places.”

“Let there be none to extend mercy unto him,” Drake quoted, “Neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.”

Nice stuff, huh? Of course, it's no surprise that Drake is invoking the Old Testament smiting God instead of the hippie Jesus, who was all about turning the other cheek, which makes me wonder why Drake calls himself a Christian in the first place. I mean, if he wants to follow the Old Testament god, he ought to--that's the beauty of freedom of religion in this country, after all.

I'll be writing more on this at some point this week--there's a long article in the NY Times Magazine that I'm going to dig into because I think the writer is a bit off base in his description of religious thought in the US--but this is good for a start.

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