Religious Ecstasy in Politics: Lou Engle and the Republican Anti-Health Care Reform Pray-a-Thon

I’m confused. I thought that followers of Christ are supposed to pray for the interests of the sick and the poor, not pray against them. But here’s a group of Republican lawmakers and right-wing activists, led by Lou Engle and Michelle Bachmann, earnestly gathering in opposition to the Senate’s tepid health care reform bill, treating it like it would be some horrible sin against God were it to pass:

As I watched the above video, I said to myself, “Where have I seen the host of this event—Lou Engle—before? He looks familiar.”

Then it registered with me. I live in California, and back in November of 2008, Lou Engle organized a giant (30,000 people strong) anti-gay prayer rally in San Diego. The prayer rally was in the run-up to the state’s vote on Proposition 8 (marriage equality for gay people), so apparently organizing earnest prayer events (to urge God to literally intervene and thwart liberal electoral or legislative victories) is Engle’s religious—political?—“calling.” Here’s some video from that time:

Obviously, in contemporary American culture, there are an awful lot of people walking around who, though not gods themselves, and thus having no experience at being gods, nevertheless know exactly what the God of all heaven and Earth wants to happen in human politics. The God above all gods doesn’t want civic equality for homosexuals, and he (for God is always addressed as male at these curious events) doesn’t want health care reform for the working poor in America.

And how do so many people know these extraordinary things concerning the divine mind? They just do.

Look, I’m not against prayer, or praying in public (though Jesus was). I’m also not against public displays of art. Nor am I against people getting together to dance, sing, or eat. Prayer, like these other collective activities, will probably—in some form—always go on among human beings, and I wish the practice well. But I get suspicious when I see religious or aesthetic ecstasy bleed, without any governing inhibition or proportion, into politics. It is not a characteristic of rationality or wisdom. And I’m also nerved out by it when it happens from the left as well:

History suggests that the introduction of religious or aesthetic ecstasy into politics can corrode rational democratic dialogue, and even be a prelude to an emerging authoritarianism. And as the above political videos are illustrative of, contemporary Americans tend to be far more religiously emotive and charismatic in their political behavior than people living in other industrialized nations. It’s hard to imagine many contemporary Brits, for example, getting equivalently wound-up about, say, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. 

But what moves the above videos from the merely curious to actually troubling is when our nation’s second largest political party (the Republican Party) starts to morph, before your very eyes, into an overtly sectarian fundamentalist party. Fundamentalist religious parties are characteristic of economically developing countries (India, for example, has one), but what happens when a mature Western democracy starts to spawn one? Can you imagine, for example, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party’s 1964 presidential nominee, being comfortable in such a party?

And how is it any longer a political party when sectarian fundamentalist dogmas are being pressed into the public square, not for purposes of rational debate, but for ecstatic reification—and for elevating in-group solidarity—beyond the realms of dialogue? Once you’re pressing God as being, in some ultimate or Manichean sense, on one—and only one—side of a political debate, then, with regard to your fellow citizens, you’re no longer really listening or talking to them, are you?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Religious Ecstasy in Politics: Lou Engle and the Republican Anti-Health Care Reform Pray-a-Thon

  1. TomH says:

    I put it to you: Is it always wrong for one’s metaphysical commitments to “bleed into politics?” Is this true for atheists and agnostics as well as theists? What if the atheist or agnostic commitments are as much anti-theist as atheist or agnostic?

    How can we be certain that our metaphysical commitments don’t “bleed into politics?” Is preventing such a thing even possible?

  2. santitafarella says:


    You ask a great question, and it’s a complicated one. Videos like those above just drive the question to the fore.

    Here’s how I would answer it for myself right now, and since it might get long, I might well just make this a separate post. Here goes:

    Let’s use gay marriage as an example. Let’s say that I reject gay marriage (which I don’t) because of a verse that I have read in Leviticus. And let’s say that I have voluntarily taken upon myself submission to the Bible in all its dictates (including not eating pork and not making artistic representations of gods).

    How do my voluntary commitments now translate into the nation’s collective and diverse community politics? I would say that, if we are going to live in a democratic and free country, that I recognize this: in a pluralistic culture, if I don’t want the state recognizing gay marriage, then I must bring forth rational justifications (rational in ways that non-Leviticus believers can understand). In other words, I recognize that not everyone shares my voluntary commitments, and that my nation is not in a covenantal relationship with my chosen deity. I am, and my community of those who have made the same voluntary commitments are, but no one else is.

    This means that I engage my voluntary religious ecstasies and commitments with those who share them, and I do this at a house of worship. It also means that, in political matters, I recognize when I have stepped away from my covenantal community and entered the civic community where reason and pragmatism is engaged for the good of the diverse community as a whole. I don’t bring my voluntary ecstasies into the diverse communal square precisely because I respect conscience and am not trying to impose, by law or social pressures to conformity, my voluntary commitments on people who have not freely and very deliberately chosen them.

    Likewise, I don’t expect to be served alcohol in a city council meeting (there are bars for that form of ecstasy and voluntary engagement) and I don’t expect to step into a city council meeting encountering earnest and ecstatic prayers to Jesus (for lets assume that I am an Orthodox Jew). Were I to enter a city council meeting, or the meeting of what I thought was a secular and national political party, and I found the atmosphere akin to a bar, or I found that prayers were being earnestly offered up to Jesus (as just two examples) I’d know that I was no longer living in a country where diverse ways of being in the world were being acknowledged or respected, and I would immediately be alienated from my own citizenship in my own democracy.


  3. TomH says:

    But the issue is which metaphysics are to be applied. How does your recommendation produce different results from a situation where a government enforces atheism/agnosticism in politics?

    You are essentially arguing that it is Ok for some people to believe whatever they want as long as they don’t practice it, because you don’t agree with those beliefs, but that it’s Ok for the beliefs with which you agree to be imposed on society. Any decision to tolerate or not tolerate certain things has an impact on society generally, whether it comes from a religious or irreligious commitment.

    I think that it’s unreasonable to appeal to the authority of scripture to justify certain laws in trying to persuade atheists/agnostics to support passing those laws. However, it’s also unreasonable for you to argue that religious people shouldn’t be influenced by their beliefs in the way that they act in politics because other people may not share those beliefs. Religious people may use reason to persuade irreligious people, but that’s no reason for them to commit to not to vote based on their convictions or not to attempt to have laws passed that they see as good, despite the fact that irreligious people may not agree with them. In the same way, irreligious people are not proscribed from acting in politics as they see fit to oppose laws which they don’t see as good.

    I don’t think that the ideology that all people must act in politics as if they were irreligious is consonant with liberty.

    Now you’ve got something new and politically incorrect to discuss. Maybe you should write a paper, “How to defend society from tolerance,” where tolerance is being prescribed universally in an ideological and tyrannical manner.

    One might also discuss why heterosexual marriage is a benefit to society and homosexuality is not, from a rational/darwinist perspective.

    One might discuss the definition of liberty from Mills’ perspective as opposed to an anarchist perspective (both of which I find appealing in some ways). What is the relationship between liberty and libertinism? Does libertinism empower or weaken an individual? WWASD? (What would a stoic do?) How important is virtue to a society and what makes something virtuous?

  4. santitafarella says:


    I’m surprised that you take what I said as a restriction on religious liberty. Please tell me how you have a secular and pragmatic democratic nation, in which religious liberty is protected from interference, if the large monotheisms (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) wish (as an exercise of their religious freedom) to impose their voluntarily adopted covenantal community’s standards on the nation as a whole?

    If you don’t want to live in a secular and diverse democracy that separates church and state, and recognizes the conscience and volition of your fellow humans, fine. You will then obviously pursue a politics of force—force upon conscience. But I would argue that only a monotheism that recognizes the strictly voluntary commitments of its own covenantal community can function in a secular democracy. In the exercise of your freedom of conscience, you don’t get to force others.

    The moment that a monotheism starts talking about the nation’s relation to God in covenantal terms you are on the road to destroying secular democracy and replacing it with a theocracy.

    As for atheism/agnosticism as the defacto religion of the state, I disagree. The pragmatic and religiously neutral nation guarantees religious and irreligious liberty. It is the nation conceived as a nonvoluntary covenantal community in relation to the one true god that makes religious liberty impossible. The founders of this nation recognized that. Why don’t you?


  5. santitafarella says:


    One more thought on the “atheist” state: what is it, exactly, that you want the state to give you, in terms of religious freedoms, that you don’t already possess?

    If you want the Republican Party (for example) to become a fundamentalist political party, you are free to do so. I just think it is extraordinarily foolish, and in terms of political calculation, disasterous for conservatism. Fortunately, fundamentalist political parties, given our country’s diverse demographics, will (should they come into existence) be marginal in their power.

    I like living in a secular democracy, don’t you?


  6. Bob says:

    There are great many religious legal documents in our country. The US Constitution being one of them.

    Lou Engle has been against death for some time. Pornography, immorality, and abortion are key contributors to this.

    No one wants to see people without healthcare, but beside the fact that the statistics are a bit confusing, I think it is unacceptable to have a healthcare plan that brings health to America, but also brings death to the unborn.

    Choice is a bad word to describe the homicide of a generation.

    Lou is like many others like him to ad hocly stand for life in the relatively speaking unorganized underground.

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