Prayer and Politics

Jack Bloom, the Democratic Alliance leader in the Gauteng legislature, recently published an opinion piece encouraging prayer as a means of moral regeneration that perhaps had the power to galvanise people to action in a way that politicians could not. Drawing anecdotally upon prayer-led regenerative movements in history and some of the changes that they had a role in shaping, he rounds off with the suggestion that conservative religious institutions should perhaps return to a position of greater moral and social authority. You can read his piece at http://bit.ly/wKjMmh.

A friend of mine, Jacques Rousseau, took issue with him, pointing out that anecdotal evidence of the sort presented does not actually prove any connection between prayer, religious revivals, and especially the change that has supposedly resulted from them. Any number of factors might have had a far greater role in, say, abolition of slavery, than religious movements. Jacques also gives evidence that secular countries tend to have a better ethical record than religious ones. You can read his riposte at http://bit.ly/yQ4x3E.

[Jack has since responded (http://bit.ly/Ar9BC9) arguing among other things that good secularism is still trading upon religious moral capital. This is a common retort, and one about which we’ll have to wait and see, I suppose. I personally doubt it is as simple as that. Anyway, the exchange is interesting and worth following.]

I would like to add a couple of points to the debate, perhaps we’ll call it one for each side.

Firstly, as an endorsement of Jack Bloom’s sentiments, I think that prayer can play an important role. Of course, much depends on addressing the true God and in the right manner, which is by no means a guarantee, but even from a purely pragmatic (virtually secular) perspective, it can be important. The reason for this is that prayer has a good chance of promoting humility. It is perfectly possible in the hands of the worst sort of people for prayer to be one more tool in service of hubris (take for example Jesus’ caricature of that Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers…” [Luke 18:11]). Yet prayer is per definition an act of casting oneself upon what one believes to be a higher power. This ought to breed a sense of perspective.

Humility is certainly something that is needed in this country, from the top down. In fact, Jim Collins, a researcher of organisational change, has written identifying hubris as the first of five steps that successful companies take on the road to utter failure. Restoration of humility and renouncing of complacency are the only cure (http://amzn.to/UctDR). If prayer can play a role in growing humility, I say advocate it. If people end up praying earnestly to the right God who then turns out to exist and care, all the better.

Secondly, as a caution to Jack Bloom, in particular concerning his opinion that religions should wield more social and moral clout, I would be concerned that it makes all the difference who those religious are. The good sort are great, but the bad can be really bad. I would hate to be taking cues from the frequently confused type, but taking moral guidance from some of them would be hell on earth. Some confuse Sharia law for morality, or the ‘God inspired’ hatred of gays.

The Greek philosophers rated monarchy as the best system of government, if the king were good and noble, but had the potential to be the worst if the king were wicked (democracy, in their view was the least desirable because it had the least potential for going wrong, or for getting anything worthwhile done — hopefully they would like what we’ve done with it). Handing moral responsibility over to the religious could have good effect if they were wise, benevolent, principled, and selfless. But I don’t fancy the chances.

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6 thoughts on “Prayer and Politics

  1. Jacques says:

    Thanks for this, Jordan. If I’d said more, I could well have ended up agreeing with an aspect of what you say above regarding prayer and humility. I don’t doubt that in some cases, the attitude or disposition to prayer and the worldview that depends on can decrease selfishness and so forth. Various goods can come of that (to my mind, outweighed by longer-term harms as you know, but that’s a separate issue). But that sort of efficacy of prayer has less to do with prayer than with a commitment to a cause. In other words, a reverential attitude to (for example) justice or equality might generate as much good.

    Of course, those things don’t have the books, buildings, prayers, etc. to buttress them, and I wouldn’t want to make anything a thoughtless ideology. Loose thoughts, but just wanted to agree that there’s a dimension I never went into, and to say I don’t dismiss it out of hand.

    • Lesang Dikgole says:

      Hey Jordan,

      i was not aware of this discussion so thanks for highlighting it.

      i disagree with what I perceive to be the secularisation of prayer. it is very close to Kant’s ‘Religion within the bounds of mere reason’ , which is what probably encouraged liberal Christianity. (I think I have heard of a quote from C.S. Lewis along the lines of

  2. Lesang Dikgole says:

    Hey Jordan,

    i was not aware of this discussion so thanks for highlighting it.

    i disagree with what I perceive to be the secularisation of prayer. it is very close to Kant’s ‘Religion within the bounds of mere reason’ , which is what probably encouraged liberal Christianity. (I think I have heard of a quote from C.S. Lewis along the lines of ‘the secularisation of the Church begins when the Church becomes too involved in and confuses wordly agendas with essentially spiritual agendas’. This is definitely not the exact quote but something which implies the same) .

    As a Chritian, i think it is not only wrong to evaluate prayer on secular grounds but also to wield religion for secular causes (not exactly the same thing as saying that religious people shouldn’t apply their religious ethos for the greater good in society. i am also not saying that religion shouldn’t be subjected secular scrutiny. i can elaborate if all this is unclear.). Besides, what is Jack Bloom trying to achieve, turn this country into a theocracy?

    Lesang

  3. Lesang says:

    A quote from Michel Horton’s Book: Beyond Cultural Wars:

    “Ironically, we rail against religious pluralism while we push for prayer in the schools, no matter the religion or object of faith . . . evangelical Christianity has just become one more voting bloc asserting its political rights, along with other special interest groups. Unlike the early Christians, who grounded their mission in specific truth claims, we argue for dominance on the basis of (a) seniority (i.e., the precedent of the founding fathers) and (b) pragmatism (i.e., the moral and civic usefulness of Christian morality)….. . . . We should follow the example of those first Christians by arguing our case, not as a program of moral improvement or national salvation, but as the truth about God and humanity.”

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      I agree with you, Lesang (and Michael Horton). It matters completely that one prays from the right attitude and to the right person; all I’m trying to do is ask myself, ‘Given that person A is advocating prayer, and given that I think it is only spiritually valuable under certain (unmanageable-in-the-public-forum) restrictions, are there any other reasons why it might be valuable?’

      One benefit is that it promotes humility more than not praying, even if it is not genuine, spiritually valuable prayer. I would of course not consider this a desirable sort of prayer religiously speaking.

      ________________________________

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