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PRAYER AND POLITICS

November 1, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 South Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585-0022.

This All Saints Day is also the Sunday before Election Day. I call to mind the words of Saint Paul. “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.” (I Timothy 2:1-3)

During the 2004 political campaign, Representative Doug Smith and his wife, Alison, hosted a visit to Spartanburg from Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States. Cheney was running for a second term with President George W. Bush. Doug was the Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives. He asked if I would offer the prayer on that occasion.  I had to think about his request for a while.  An invitation to pray at a political gathering poses a real danger. The Fourth of the Ten Commandments specifically forbids using the name of God in a self-serving way.  “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7). I did not want to violate the commandment for the sake of formality. 

The novel Cold Mountain tells the story of a soldier from North Carolina who fought for the Confederacy.  In a conversation with a pastor before leaving for the war, he reflected, “I think the Almighty must grow weary of being called down for both sides.”  I agree.  God must grow weary when called upon to favor one side over another in war or to bless one political party over another in an election year. 

I weighed the invitation from my friend Doug.  I usually do my best to avoid public political involvement, especially if I might be perceived as favoring one candidate over another.   The question that I asked myself was, “Would I also pray at a gathering of Democrats?”  My answer was, “Yes, I am willing to pray for anybody.” 

After I accepted Doug’s kind invitation, he told me of the many preparations for the Vice President’s visit.  He explained that my Social Security number, my driver’s license number, and my date of birth had to be sent to Washington so that some official agency – the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, or Homeland Security – could clear me. I hope that my congregation at the time was greatly relieved to know that Washington approved me.

Doug further explained, “You will have to write out your prayer.  I need to fax it to the White House.” 

I wrote a prayer very much like the one I say at mealtime in our home.  In my prayer, which consisted of five sentences, I asked that God help us have the humility to be servants and that we would understand that divine blessings are not favors bestowed to us over others, but blessings given to us so that we can be a blessing to the people around us.  I kept in mind the admonition of Jesus: “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).  The White House approved my prayer, just as I wrote it.

On the day of the Vice President’s visit, I made hospital rounds as usual before driving to Doug and Alison’s home.  Because of the many law enforcement officers and barricades, I found myself explaining over and over again, to people in uniform, that I was the pastor who was supposed to offer the prayer at the meal.  Security officers passed information back and forth over radios and walkie-talkies and checked the license plate on my car before they allowed me to get closer to the gathering. 

When I arrived at the Smith home, I was told, “Dr. Neely, you need to stand as close to the podium in the tent as you can.  We will call on you when it is time to pray.”  I took my position as instructed.

I had orders to stay near the speaker’s stand, and for the nearly forty-five minutes that the guests waited, I spoke to many friends in the crowd.  The food looked delicious – shrimp and grits, iced tea, peach cobbler with ice cream – but I could not get to it.  I had not given any money to attend this fundraiser.  I was there to pray, but I did want a plate of shrimp and grits.  I stayed in my assigned position. 

Suddenly, a hubbub of activity caught our attention.  The two men posted near the podium started whispering into their fountain pens.  I noticed an almost invisible wire coming out of their ears.  Then eight more men took up positions, instructing the crowd to move back five feet behind a railing. 

One said to me, “Sir, you need to move back.” 

I said, “I am going to offer the prayer.” 

He said, “Sir, move back, but stay right here so I can see you.” 

I did as I was told. 

Doug and Alison Smith came and stood by me as more Secret Service agents took their positions in a choreographed movement.  David Wilkins, the head of the Republican Party for South Carolina, led a brief Republican pep rally.  Then the Vice President’s daughter, who had given birth to a baby only five weeks before, introduced her father. 

Vice President Cheney reminded me of a professor I had in seminary.  When Dick Cheney spoke, he leaned forward on the platform.  I am sure he was exhausted, but he spoke at some length. 

Doug Smith whispered to me, “This is like a Baptist sermon.” 

I chuckled, “The offering is better here.”  

At the conclusion of the Vice President’s speech, agents moved in formation.  Suddenly, Mr. Cheney was gone.

Surprised, Doug Smith turned to me and asked, “Did you pray?” 

“Doug, did you speak?”

He responded, “What happened to the Pledge of Allegiance?”

Apparently, the Vice President had fallen behind schedule and his staff decided to cut the agenda.  The Pledge of Allegiance, my prayer, and Doug Smith’s comments were omitted. 

My friend Representative Lanny Littlejohn stayed behind with me after the Vice President left.  “I am glad you are here,” he said.

“I came to pray,” I explained.

He mused, “I must have missed that.”   

We joked about it as we helped ourselves to shrimp and grits, still warm and delicious.

As I was leaving, I thanked Doug and Alison for their hospitality.  Doug apologized, but no apology was necessary.  I did pray, just not audibly.

The very next week, former Congresswoman Liz Patterson called, inviting me to pray at a fundraiser at Cleveland Park for the Democratic Party.  “We will let you pray,” she assured me.  “You won’t even have to get your prayer approved by the White House.”

I accepted Liz’s kind invitation.  Again, I enjoyed being with many friends as I enjoyed a delicious meal of Southern barbeque.  Just as Doug Smith had so graciously yielded his time to the Vice President three weeks earlier, three local candidates yielded their time to senatorial candidate Inez Tennenbaum.  A petite woman with a strong presence, she reminded me of one of my favorite schoolteachers.

At the Democratic fundraiser, I did pray.  Liz Patterson had told me my prayer did not have to be approved by Washington, but it was.  I used the same prayer I had written for the Republicans. When I announced that to the crowd, they all got a good laugh.

I am neither Democrat nor Republican. I identify as an Independent.  I have good friends in both of the major political parties.  All candidates for political office have strengths and weaknesses.  The right to vote is our most important civic responsibility. Prayer is our most important spiritual responsibility. For people off faith, preparation for Election Day, November 3, begins with prayer. Prayer must be followed by the commitment to vote. Our prayers are not attempts to persuade the Almighty to bestow favor on one political party or another. We are not trying to help God see things our way.  Our prayers are for divine guidance as we choose those who will serve.

This passage from Hebrew scripture comes to mind.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (II Chronicles 7:14)

Words from a patriotic hymn written by Irvin Berlinbecome our prayer.

God bless America,

Land that I love,

Stand beside her, and guide her

Through the night with a light from above.

From the mountains, to the prairies,

To the oceans, white with foam

God bless America, My home sweet home

God bless America, My home sweet home.

Amen.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.coM

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