The Car Wreck that is Sarah Palin and the National Day of Prayer

The following is a slightly altered transcript of Rev. Gaddy’s commentary from an upcoming broadcast of State of Belief.

Originally, I intended to devote my commentary to tributes to Benjamin Hooks and to Dorothy Height, admired courageous civil rights leaders who died this past week. Each exemplified the best of efforts aimed at helping our nation move closer to a realization of the full promise of our Constitution. Dr. Height had marched against lynching as a teenager. As she developed as an activist, her vision of freedom was as large as all women, as well as all African Americans. She understood that in this democracy there should be no boundaries around freedom or hierarchies of privilege.

So my plans for today’s commentary changed. Frankly, following the news this past week gave me the sensation of watching a car wreck while holding my breath in anticipation of learning how many people had been, or would be found, injured by the crash.  

Enter Sarah Palin, the driver at the wheel of a political vehicle that has catapulted out of control. Obviously Sarah Palin does not know enough about the road of democracy or the rules for driving it.  

Frightened people looking for a quick fix for their fears and alleviation of their anxieties are being hurt by a distorted version of American history and a perverted vision of the future. This past week in Louisville, Kentucky, the former governor of Alaska told a crowd, in response to a federal court ruling that a government celebrated National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional, that “America needs to get back to its Christian roots.”

Sadly, Sarah Palin cannot distinguish between fanciful images of revisionist historians and actual facts documentable in the chronicles of the nation’s archives. She has turned a deaf ear to George Washington who asserted that “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” and to his successor John Adams—who knew the Constitution better than Ms. Palin—when, after signing a treaty with a mostly Muslim nation, repeated Washington’s comment almost verbatim.  

I suppose the popular speaker would have us establish one religion over all others—hers, of course—and subject our nation to the possibility of the kind of violent political wars that were averted here because of the wisdom of our founders. But, of course, she seems to consider guns more friend than weapon as she shouts, “Reload.”  

Palin has thrown what we used to call in West Tennessee “a conniption fit” over the federal judge’s decision that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. While many of us applauded a judge who seems to understand the First Amendment’s religion clauses, some political pontificators and bandwagon religionists rushed to microphones to decry the further moral ruination of the nation.  

Setting aside all Constitutional arguments for a moment, I am always suspicious of people who seem not to understand the theology of prayer and who seem preoccupied with support only for prayers that attract public attention rather than prayers offered to God in solitude. Palin said she finds a ruling such as this “mind-boggling.” That is precisely the reaction I have to her alarmist rhetoric that seems sensitive to nothing more than grabbing another headline in her next high-paying talk.  

Palin did get one thing right in her Louisville speech. She said the Founding Fathers were believers. That is a true statement. Many of them were deists, but few of them were Christians by Palin’s narrow evangelical definition. However, the larger truth is that these were people, regardless of their religious identity, who had witnessed the abuse and violence that emerge when institutions of religion and government became entangled.  

Palin and her followers represent danger to religion and government. They understand neither the freedom for everybody at the heart of real religion nor the religious freedom assured by the Constitution.  

The American people do not need the President of the United States to tell them when to pray or what to pray for. By definition prayer is personal and volitional. But neither do the American people need Sarah Palin stirring a revolt to get rid of the very principles that have assured efforts to guarantee civil rights to everybody and made our nation great.  

It is, indeed, like watching a car wreck that has just happened or is about to happen. It is time for more of us to scream, “Watch out!”