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Prayer at the Rodeo
My wife, daughter, and I have been visiting with my in-laws in Texas for the last couple of weeks. Since we don't have any family nearby us in central Virginia, date nights are somewhat difficult to program, so whenever we visit, we take advantage of the grandparents' generosity and try to have as many fun outings as a couple as possible. My wife grew up in a small town on the outskirts of the Texas hill country, so many of our outings are heavily tinged with that local color — such as rodeos.
This was, literally, my first rodeo. Cowboys on horseback dressed in PRCA compliant attire — khaki shirt, wide brimmed hat — greeted us as we pulled into the grass parking lot. The smell of hay and horse droppings mingled with popcorn and cigarette smoke. The atmosphere was carnival-like, with face-painting booths and vendors selling wares ranging from cowboy hats to t-shirts to pocket knives. Alcoholic beverages were sold straight from portable coolers. The rodeo arena was flanked on two sides with tall, rusting metal bleachers that seemed to be two stories high. We took our drinks (Bud Light, brewed in Texas since 1982!) and sat about a third of the way up.
Aside from being "free night", where attendees could gain admission with the donation of certain canned goods to the local food bank, the rodeo was observing "first responders night". The fanfare around this event was relatively minimal — a recently deceased retired police officer was honored, as was a local firefighter who had rescued someone from a burning building. This was followed by the Grand Entry, when all of the performers entered the arena on horseback, with the American and Texas flags at the front. A group of bagpipers then played "Amazing Grace". Finally, the opening ceremonies concluded with the presentation of the colors and the singing of the National Anthem, but not before being preceded by a prayer.
To coastal, college-educated, knowledge-worker types like myself, the confluence of prayer and patriotism is liable to set off some alarms. I wouldn't even call myself progressive at all, but I'd be lying if I said that the close juxtaposition of "God and country" doesn't make me a little uncomfortable. Jesus told us to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, but I'm quite certain that excludes prayer.
Of course, the prayer was not to the flag necessarily. And its contents were very much for the rodeo itself, making petition for the safety of the riders and animals, and expressing gratitude for all the attendees, participants, and sponsors. The announcer's prayer did identify our nation as possessing a sort of blessedness, but that blessedness was tied to the local and the particular. The whole thing was suffused with a deep affection.
Affection is a word that seldom characterizes our political or social life today. As we've become more technocratic, we've become more clinical, detached, and partitioned. Attempts at universal, impartial justice risks shaving off the edges and protrusions that don't cohere with the larger vision. And indeed, sometimes edges need to be blunted — just ask the black Americans who have been cut by sharp, jagged legacies of racialized oppression. But in an effort to be all things to all people, the liberal ideal of universal justice can hollow itself out, becoming empty and malleable to the ends of anyone with the power to control it.
I'm a believer in the liberal ideals on which our nation was founded — individual liberty, rule of law, and equal treatment under that law — but liberalism's universal appeals have always been haunted by their tenuousness. This is especially true when its claims have no greater authority to which they can appeal. That is perhaps why John Adams said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Adams's intuition may account for the appeal of what is commonly called "Christian Nationalism".
My reactionary instinct wants to call Christian Nationalism a bogeyman, a fear-inducing story to shock its hearers into acquiescence to some other political end. And I do think that its shape is largely amorphous — like "Critical Race Theory" and "wokeness" when spoken of by the political "right", pundits and politicians commonly deploy "Christian Nationalism" as a shorthand for the opinions of political enemies. But, just like "CRT" and "woke ideologies", it's hard to deny that the term "Christian Nationalism" attempts to identify something that is both real and consequential, albeit in a grasping and incompletely understood manner.
I think that grasping is an apt image for how we engage with the political and spiritual, the immanent and the transcendent. Such distinctions are admittedly a consequence of the modern, disenchanted water in which we swim, but the posture of reaching out and trying to seize both characterizes our inner desperation and belies the confidence and swagger we so often project. We grasp for arguments when confronted with facts that contradict preferred narratives; we grasp for power via elected champions; we grasp for familiarity and surety in the face of change and uncertainty; we grasp for a handhold when the ground shakes beneath us; we grasp for God in prayer when we wonder whether he's even there.
Liberalism is often among the culprits blamed for the secularization of the world and the self, and such blame is not wholly misplaced — its universal claims necessitate the functional subordination of truth claims which contradict it. However, the universal claims of liberalism are ineluctably indebted to the universality of the Christianity which preceded it. The belief in humans as divine image bearers, the calls to charity, mercy, and generosity, and the earth-ward movement of God's saving action all provide the intellectual ground in which a humane and humanistic understanding of society can grow.
The separation of church and state points to this underlying tension — a tension that is multi-directional. From the perspective of the state, it restrains the state from coercing the church, and acts as a bulwark against institutional religion exercising undue influence on the state. Despite its Jeffersonian origins, however, I would argue that church-and-state separation is a deeply biblical notion, at least insofar as the New Testament is concerned. Jesus commands a non-coercive disposition toward earthly powers, and St. Paul counsels Roman believers to live peaceably with all. Simultaneously, the core Christian proclamation that "Jesus is Lord" carries with it the heavy implication that Caesar is not, and is therefore a statement of passive political resistance. The Old Testament is another matter, with its various theocratic, monarchic, and exilic arrangements in the history of the Jewish people. But in the exilic context, which most closely parallels that of the New Testament church, God instructs his people to "seek the welfare of the city" in which they live. The witness of holy writ presents a pattern of orientation toward society that is internally consistent, but laden with tensions.
How does this tension resolve? I think St. Paul points us back to a simple action: pray for everything, including those with charge of our political life. The act of prayer both expresses faithfulness and points out our unfaithfulness, for in doing what we are commanded, we affirm the rightness of God's way of working in the world, the way of love, mercy, generosity, and justice. I think this is why the Lord's Prayer pairs our petition for forgiveness with a petition for forgiving hearts toward others. We cannot hate our enemies if we pray for forgiving hearts toward them.
What has this to do with prayer at the rodeo? I'm not entirely sure. I don't know the heart of every person there, nor is it my business to. What I do know is that everyone there shared the same beautiful, sinful, divinely blessed humanity as me, and that our prayer was heard by one who, to paraphrase Augustine, is closer to us than we are to ourselves. We stood under the wide, colorful, dramatic Texas sky as raindrops drizzled over us, blessed to live in a country where we could pray freely. I hope and pray that we'd all use that freedom to pray for others a little more, and that we'd all know our own blessedness a little more.