Praying for Rain? Really, Secretary Vilsack?

July 19, 2012

 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters at the White House that he is praying for rain to end the drought parching 61 percent of the United States. “I get on my knees every day,” he said on June 18. “And I’m saying an extra prayer now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.”

The Obama Administration has been criticized by secular humanists for backpedaling on then-candidate Obama’s campaign pledge to reverse Bush-era policies that provide federal funding to religious charities that discriminate in hiring. But praying for rain? That’s not just government entangling itself with religion, that’s government wallowing in superstition.

This summer’s prolonged drought, the worst in a quarter-century, is devastating crops and parching livestock. It may bring sharply higher food prices later this year. But it sends the wrong message to distraught farmers when the Agriculture Secretary suggests that the best response is to pray. First, farmers need to keep doing whatever they can to mitigate the drought’s impact. Time spent praying is time they can’t devote to efforts to save their crops or livestock. Second, for a Cabinet official to recommend prayer as a solution, or call attention to his own devotions, may violate the Constitution’s prohibition against establishment of religion. Third and most important, prayer doesn’t work. Secular humanists think prayer doesn’t work because there’s nobody up there to answer those prayers. But if you want to do test the power of prayer yourself, consider this. Apparently Secretary Vilsack’s been praying for rain every day; how’s that working out?

Source: Peter Baker, "Drought Puts Food at Risk, U. S. Warns." New York Times, July 19, 2012, p. 17.


#1 Jason Loxton (Guest) on Thursday July 19, 2012 at 9:32am

I am an atheist, and have long supported the Council for Secular Humanism on many of their efforts, but this current manufactured controversy is both petty and dishonest. The text above complains that “the Agriculture Secretary suggests that the best response is to pray,” but this isn’t what he said at all. The press release has selectively (and presumably consciously), cut off Vilsack’s quote.

Vilsack’s comments come at the end of a long Q&A about drought and the administration’s specific actions and proposals on the matter (it makes good reading). The last question is from a Christian broadcaster about the efficacy of prayer. Vilsack answers that he is praying, every day, but the best thing to do is work with Congress on specific, concrete actions. In this context, his response can be viewed as a *repudiation* of the the use of prayer (at least a sufficient means of dealing with things), i.e., more or less the opposite of what you suggest he is saying.

QUESTION: I’m Dr. Harper, the Intermountain Christian News. And Governor Perry last year had this national day of prayer and fasting, and he was encouraging people to pray and fast in these national disasters. Do you have any figures on that?

VILSACK: Well, I can only speak for myself. I get on my knees every day and I’m saying an extra prayer now. If I had a rain prayer or rain dance I could do, I would do it. But honestly, right now the focus needs to be on working with Congress — they have the capacity to help these producers by creating greater flexibility to programs, providing us some direction in terms of whatever disaster assistance can be provided. Those are the kinds of things we’re focused on.

Full transcript of the press conference is available here:

#2 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday July 19, 2012 at 10:27am

Hi Jason, long time no speak!

Thanks for this clarification—my principal source was a story in today’s NY Times, and I’m more surprised to see them mishandle context than some other media. (The short “Vilsack Says He Prays for Rain” story that discards context completely is just everywhere.)

That said, I stand by my complaint. I know the Obama White House always tries to spray a veneer of faith-friendliness on their pronouncements, but Vilsack’s statement, even in context, went too far. If I could offer one rule to all of these guys, it would be “When parrying a question from a Christian journalist, never EVER begin your response by talking about how hard you pray, it just plays into their agenda.”

#3 Jason Loxton on Thursday July 19, 2012 at 10:38am

Tom: I have some sympathy for the overall complaint (although only some; it doesn’t really bother me personally). Let this stand as a lesson: we all have to context check quotations before making interpretations about what they mean. (That’s a lesson that constantly needs repeating, because it is so easy in the days of the Internet to repost without thinking.) Both you and the CFI/CSH do great work work normally! I pounced on this one because as secularists we are so often subjected to quote mined attacks, and what we criticize in others should be doubly criticized within group.


#4 Thomas Lawson (Guest) on Thursday July 19, 2012 at 10:55am

Can I agree on both of these points?

#1: Vilsack mentioning that he gets down on his knees every day does kowtow to let Dr. Harper know he’s on his team (wink). But Dr. Harper’s idiotic question of “figures” for Gov. Perry’s rain prayer event may have caught him off guard. What figures did he suppose Vilsack had on that? What a stupid question.

#2: Vilsack mentioning a “rain dance” actually sounds like he was mocking himself and Dr. Harper for their collective delusions.

Kind of a lose-win.

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