Alabama, along with several other places in the country, is suffering through one of the worst droughts in decades. Agribusiness, whether it takes the form of cattle or produce, is dependent on water. And agribusiness is big business in Alabama.
Gov. Riley, no stranger to the precariousness of living off the land, understands this need for water. His idea was to have all of us pray for rain.
For this he was criticized. Charges of violating the separation of church and state were leveled at the governor because of his call for prayer. And while I am a big believer in keeping church and state separate, the governor’s actions do not even get close to the line.
Of course, had he formed the Alabama Commission on Weather Prayers and had state employees actually praying for rain–that would have been different.
But Gov. Riley did what other leaders have done during times of crisis. For example, folks forget that our observance of Thanksgiving was a result of the Civil War. Lincoln called for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving as the conflict drew to a close. After 9/11, President Bush also called the nation to prayer.
Calling on the public to pray during times of distress or peril is perfectly understandable. That is, so long as the leader calling for prayer recognizes that not everyone prays in the same way.
For instance, if Governor Riley had called on Christians to pray, claiming only prayers “in Jesus’ name” were authentic, then that would have been inappropriate. But calling on citizens to pray in their own way, and out of their own understanding of what prayer means does not create a problem.
Well, except for people who don’t pray at all. The assumption that all citizens of Alabama are praying people is a little presumptuous. A study from a few years back suggests that 93 percent of folks living in Alabama practice some sort of Christianity or Judaism. The other 7 percent would be comprised of Muslims, and some non-theistic religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. In that 7 percent would also be people who don’t pray at all.
So what Gov. Riley might have said, just to show respect to all citizens could have been, “I call on all citizens who pray to pray for rain.”
We could get into questions of whether or not “prayer works.” It did in fact rain the week after the Governor’s plea, but not everywhere the state needed it, and not nearly enough to end the drought.
We could ask what it means when we pray and nothing happens, or we get the opposite of what we asked for. We might wonder if the purpose of prayer is to change God’s mind, or change us in the face of some desperate circumstance.
We might also question praying only for Alabama. I am sure God loves the people of Alabama, but not more than other people in the world. Should our appeals include petitions for other parts of the world that may be going through some desperate circumstances?
The bottom line here is that the governor was not out of line in his call for prayer, maybe just insensitive to the plurality of our state, small though it may be. Besides all that, Jesus said that it rains on the just and the unjust, but he did not say that any of us can take credit for the rain.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).