Texas Gov. Rick Perry is dancing closer and closer to a bid for the U.S. presidency. He's talking to his wife (she's counseling him, he says, to get out of his comfort zone), to potential fundraisers and, presumably, to God. On Aug. 6, Perry will convene a Christian day of prayer and fasting to "seek God's guidance and wisdom in addressing the challenges that face our communities, states and nation."
Perry's call came in the form of an official proclamation from the office of the governor urging "Americans of faith" to pray on Aug. 6, but his press release narrowed that down: The event at Reliant Stadium in Houston, dubbed the Response, would be a "Christian prayer service." Moreover, according to the website created for it, the meeting "has adopted the American Family Association statement of faith," including the infallibility of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the eternal damnation that awaits nonbelievers.
Claiming affiliation with Christian values often guarantees immunity from serious public or media backlash, but it shouldn't. Not when that claim, once you get to the details, means that about 21% of the adult U.S. population (including nonbelievers and those unaffiliated with any faith, and non-Christians, according to the most recent Pew Religious Landscape Survey) are excluded from a quasi-governmental event that will, among other things, proclaim their eternal damnation.
Let's imagine how the public would respond if Perry were a Muslim, and an essential part of his exclusionary day of prayer included the claim that Christians and Jews are infidels who, if they are not converted (possibly forcibly) in this life, are guaranteed to suffer eternal damnation in the next.
Or imagine what is an even more unlikely scenario. What if Perry were an atheist who called for a day of secular discussion of solutions to the many challenges we face as a nation, and as a sidelight pushed the notion that the faithful should not play a role in the discussion?
The Constitution's establishment clause was designed to protect freedom of religion by protecting us from one religion, authorized by the state. But the noxious nature of the governor's proposal does not merely hinge on the question of its constitutionality.
It is at best inappropriate for religious zealots to claim a unique mantle of righteousness. But when those empowered by the electorate to govern suggest that governance should be based not only on a religious premise but the premise of one religion in particular, to the exclusion and derision of those whose spiritual inclinations may differ, we must be on guard.
The challenges facing this country are numerous and manifest. Threats to national security, the economy, public health and welfare, the environment, energy security and more are well known. Those who want our government to address these issues head on, and not with fairy tales — religious or otherwise — should not stand idly by and let the debate or public policy be hijacked by those who claim to know the truth before the relevant questions have even been asked.
Like it or not, the claimed doctrines of the world's major religions are not only incompatible with each other, but sometimes also with the evidence of reality. For these reasons alone we should not cede the debate on public affairs or the "solutions to the challenges" that face us to one group that asserts any specific divine support for its cause.
Perry's proclamation, and the Response website, seek cover with a timeline of historical calls for national prayer, quoting John Adams and George Washington beseeching a Christian God's forgiveness and guidance with days of prayer stretching back to the Continental Congress in 1775. One can argue about the spiritual intent and theological inclination of the founders, but if they had felt that the Bible was sufficient to govern the affairs of men and women, they would hardly have felt it was necessary to draft the Constitution.
There is a reason theocracies are found at the bottom of the world's economic and opportunity ladder. Successful public policy cannot be based purely on doctrines established before we knew the Earth orbited the sun. The modern world is changing, and only an approach to dealing with real-world problems that recognizes the fluidity of both material and spiritual conditions can change along with it.
We can only hope that Perry's gambit, which many people think is designed to aid him in a quest for the presidency, will backfire. Even the faithful should recognize that truth is not the dominion of a single religion — and that the problems we face as a nation are too important to be left to those who have nothing more to offer than the claim of having God on their side.
Lawrence M. Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His newest book, "A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing," is scheduled to be published in January.