The Politics of Prayer

"If God doesn't punish America," Billy Graham's wife told him, "He'll have to apologize for Sodom and Gomorrah." Graham recounts this exchange in a "Letter to America," a statement he issued recently to kick off another evangelization effort. He professes, yet again, to believe that America will collapse unless its people turn toward God. And while I do not dispute the sincerity of Graham's faith, I think it is worth investigating how Graham speaks about the nation, rather than, say, his church, or the Christian church, or a neighborhood, or a neighbor?

As many have noted at The Huffington Post, Graham has periodically decried the state of America for most of his adult life. For me, it matters both when Graham indicts the nation as well as how he indicts it. Of course, Graham is far from the only preacher or religious figure to call the nation to answer for its sins. One of the extraordinary features of American culture is the regularity with which religion is employed to bear witness to the nation. Yet it is not incidental that Graham's recent missive comes in the middle of an election year; America's best-known preacher understands well the power of his pronouncements. He continues to be an astute practitioner of the politics of prayer.

How so? Consider the following incident. In February 1973, with his friend Richard Nixon in the White House, Graham and the president attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast on February 1973. This is a tradition begun under Dwight Eisenhower that continues to the present in which politicians, military officers, foreign dignitaries and, of course, clergy gather, as the official website now explains, "to support, pray, and care for the President, his family and other leaders in our nation who carry great burdens." Delivering the Senate's remarks in 1973 was Mark Hatfield, a senator from Oregon who had to address the situation America found itself in as the Vietnam War wound down and the Watergate conspiracy heated up. When he rose to face 3,000 people in the Washington Hilton's main ballroom, Hatfield felt acutely the tension between two very different traditions -- praising the nation and judging the nation.

Hatfield had the audacity to use the Prayer Breakfast to caution Americans against enveloping their nation in prayer, lest they believe that the nation could be prayed to as well as prayed for. Then Hatfield let go with this zinger: "Today, our prayer must begin with repentance. As a people, we must turn in repentance from the sin that scarred our national soul." The next day the headline in the New York Times read: "Nixon Hears War Called A 'Sin.'"

The president was furious (he evidently had Hatfield placed on his "enemies" list). Graham was also upset, chiding Hatfield in a personal note. One wonders, though, what better time than 1973 to call on the nation to account for its collective sin of the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, in a private conversation with Nixon, Graham and the president derided Hatfield's address for pandering, as the president said, to the "radical groups on campus and the rest." Graham told Nixon that he took exception to Hatfield politicizing the prayer breakfast: "to use a platform like that in your presence at a Presidential prayer breakfast which we leaned over backwards all these years to keep non-political, and to get up and do a thing like that was just inexcusable. And if he has any part in it next year, I don't intend to go." Just to be clear, Graham accused Hatfield of playing politics with prayer.

We can scrutinize Graham's relationship with Nixon and American presidents, but I think the larger point of this incident illustrates how and when religion gets deployed to bear witness to national sins. At different times and in different ways both Hatfield and Graham used religion to serve this purpose. However, Hatfield's witness recalled a particular American tradition, one that he made explicit a few months later when he introduced a resolution in the Senate calling for April 30, 1974 to be a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer. Such days have peppered American history from the era of the Puritans through the American Revolution and the Civil War to the present day; the Civil War, though, was the last time the term "humiliation" appeared.

Hatfield resolution read, in part: "Whereas we have failed to respond, personally and collectively, with sacrifice and uncompromised commitment to the unmet needs of our fellow man, both at home and abroad; as a people, we have become so absorbed with the selfish pursuits of pleasure and profit that we have blinded ourselves to God's standard of justice and righteousness for this society." Ultimately, Hatfield's specific resolution went nowhere -- the House buried it in committee and President Gerald Ford never had a chance to sign it. The sentiment expressed in Hatfield's resolution, though, reminds us of the duality of sin. In a book that came out in 1976, Hatfield explained: "only through the acknowledgement of our corporate guilt and confession of national sins could the country regain its national purpose and unity." It matters that Hatfield called the nation as a whole to account for war that had divided it. And it also matters that Graham consciously rejected that position.

Thus, while I might accept the sincerity of Graham's ministry, I find his call for repentance in the middle of our current election year to be disingenuous and wholly political. Graham has consistently used the idea of sin as a cloak for a strategy of fear. In this way, Graham imagines that the nation is headed for ruin if it does not respond to his ministry. Compare that to Hatfield who wanted Americans to be horrified by what had already happened rather than to be afraid of some specter of destruction in the future. In other words, Graham, not Hatfield, politicized prayer. Political theorist Corey Robin has written at some length about the politics of fear, observing: "a unity of fear ... is not an artifact of mass psychology; it is a political project, crafted through leadership, ideology, and collective action." In short, it takes a campaign to make us afraid. Graham played politics when he chastised Hatfield in 1973 -- he was part of Nixon's campaign then -- and he is playing politics in the summer of 2012 when he compares America to Sodom and Gomorrah. It's not the fear that should concern us but the politics.