TNDP Counters Lee's Day of Prayer ... With Prayer

Unsurprisingly, not all Democrats are on board

Tennessee, like the rest of the United States, is overwhelmingly Christian — 81 percent of the state’s population identified as Christian in 2014, compared to almost 71 percent of the U.S. population. Another three percent of the state’s population are members of different faith communities, like Judaism or Islam. (Four percent identify as agnostic or atheist, while 11 percent describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religion.)

According to the same Pew Research Center study, 70 percent of Tennesseans say they pray daily, while another 19 percent say they pray weekly or monthly. So Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement that Oct. 10 would be a statewide day of prayer and fasting has found a mostly sympathetic audience, despite questions about separation of church and state. (Which, I will note again, is something actively discouraged by Lee’s home church.)

Personally, to this lapsed Episcopalian, a statewide day of prayer seems about as useful as Marianne Williamson urging her supporters to pray for a hurricane to change course. If thoughts and prayers actually moved mountains, we wouldn’t have any mass shootings by now. I grew up believing that faith without works is meaningless, but if praying and fasting tomorrow is going to make you feel better about the miserable state of the world, then do whatever you need to do.

However, an email sent this week to Tennessee Democratic Party county chairs, officers and executive committee members suggesting that Democrats “join in” the day of prayer has raised the ire of many party members. On Monday night TNDP chair Mary Mancini — already under fire over sloppy bookkeeping and members calling for her resignation — sent out a messaging memo encouraging interested Democrats to tweak the day of prayer to raise awareness of issues like the UAW strike, bullying and the lack of health care in rural areas:

TENNESSEE DEMOCRATIC PARTY MESSAGING MEMO: Day of Pray [sic]

TOP LINE: ​Governor Bill Lee has declared October 10, 2019 a “Day of Prayer and Fasting.” In keeping with American values of equality and inclusion, urge Tennesseans of all faiths, as well as Tennesseans with no organized religious affiliation, to choose what works for them - ​prayer, a moment of silence, private meditation, etc.​ - and join in. Pray Governor Lee/Your Elected Official understands the responsibility they have to the men and women of the state.

NARRATIVE

● A government-issued proclamation which specifies “prayer and fasting” as a collective action may be alarming,* but our country does have a tradition of publicly declaring days of prayer.

● Urge Tennesseans of all faiths, as well as Tennesseans without organized religious affiliation, to choose what works for them - ​prayer, a moment of silence, private meditation, etc​. - and join in.

● Use the October 10 “Day of Prayer” to acknowledge the connection we share and open our hearts to higher levels of empathy and compassion for those who are suffering.

● Above all, use this day to act, or pledge to act.

● It will take more than prayer, moments of silence, and silent meditation to solve the complex economic, social, and political problems in Tennessee.

● Pray Governor Lee/Your Elected Official understands their responsibility to the men and women of the state, who need their leadership right now.

SUFFERING IN TENNESSEE: Justice, struggling workers, healthcare, systemic racism, etc..

● Use stories from your own County/experiences.

● The family of Coffee County High school junior Channing Smith, who took his own life after being outed as bisexual by his classmates. Pledge to work with the Smith family as they seek justice for their son and brother.

● Tennessee is the 9th worst state for working people. Remind people to open their hearts to UAW and CWA workers and their families who, frustrated by unfair working conditions, are on strike.

● Pray for all those Tennesseans without life-saving health care coverage, without an emergency room close by, and without the medication necessary to stay alive.

● Send strength to those who fight against systemic and strategic racism and sexism.

FOR ELECTED OFFICIALS

● May our elected leaders understand that words matter, policies matter, and leadership matters.

● May our elected officials gain the wisdom, insight, and empathy to see the affect their anti-gay legislative agenda has on our communities.

● Give our elected leaders the ability to see the economic realities of the many Tennesseans who work 2-3 jobs, can’t afford life-saving medication, and struggle to feed their families.

● May our elected officials see the suffering of those without health care. Let them see that they have the power to take action to expand Medicaid.

● Let us pray for our elected leaders who use strategies of division to hold tight to their power and refuse to swing open wide the door of opportunity to all. *See the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

This is standard political messaging — do what the other side is doing, then flip it and reverse it. And it’s worth noting that the 2014 Pew study says 50 percent of self-identified Democrats pray daily, a number I would imagine is higher in Tennessee given the overall embrace of religion here. While Democrats may not have the evangelical voters who turn out like the GOP does, the state party is full of people of faith. Numerous African-American politicians across the state are also pastors; Democratic Senate candidate James Mackler is married to a rabbi; and almost everyone running for office spends every Sunday in a different church. Republicans do not have a stranglehold on Jesus, no matter how much they try. But it’s hard to imagine too many Republicans hitting “Reply All” after receiving the above memo and writing, “What the hell is this TNDP Day of Prayer nonsense?”

That was the verbatim response from Michael Lottman, an at-large member of Cheatham County Democratic Party (CCDP) Executive Committee. He continued, “We don’t have a state religion, or even a state party religion, and I for one resent an official day of prayer declared, with instructions as to how and what to pray, by a state political party. We are in enough trouble already with the Republicans and the Trumpologists trying to turn this into a country where personal religion or belief trumps all laws and constitutional requirements.

“Whose harebrained idea was this anyway? … Or is this how we have chosen to reach out to certain groups of voters, thinking they will be lured by a sudden dose of piety, or even that they should be? … The weaseling introduction to this ‘messaging memo’ purports to be inclusive, sweeping in ‘Tennesseans of all faiths, as well as Tennesseans with no organized religious affiliation,’ but make no mistake: a ‘day of prayer and fasting’ is a religious exercise, and having it declared by the state in this manner is a giant step toward fascism,” Lottman concluded.

Lottman’s response resulted in a thread of emails from other party members who agreed with him.

“For a government entity to push prayer on its constituents is unconstitutional. ... Are we following the Republicans? Should we also deny contraceptives and be against abortions since according to religion we should go forth and multiply? No wonder people are confused about what the Democrats stand for,” wrote Randy Fiedler, another member of the CCDP Executive Committee.

A third CCCP member, James Brooks, replied, “Republicans have perverted, distorted, and trivialized religion. I am certain Ms. Mancini’s heart is right and she is surely hoping to make the best of Governor Lee’s despicable Papal decree. But anything that even hints at a Democratic Party endorsement of Lee's hypocritical, diversionary, and reactionary appropriation of America’s religious traditions represents a hopeless ‘me too’ response by our Party and belies our Party’s commitment to the nation’s long-standing but often compromised belief in the separation of church and state.”

Callye J. Norsworthy, the chair of the Obion County Democratic Party, responded and said she was “one of those godforsaken Tennesseans ‘with no organized religious affiliation.’ ” She then mentioned a TNDP meeting in May that discussed how to appeal to rural voters.

“[T]here was a lot of talk about faith. So when given the opportunity to comment, I urged my fellow Democrats to remember that while faith is important to many Tennesseans, not all faith looks the same. We must remember that we have Tennesseans who are Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, and many other things or nothing at all,” Norsworthy continued. “Faith matters. But it matters how we use that word. Every Tennessean matters. We absolutely must reach the small town, bible believing, rural Tennessee voters. But we must NOT forsake all others do to so. Our party is the party of inclusion ... right?”

Mancini finally replied to the thread after Norsworthy’s email.

“No one has to participate or sanction the Day of Prayer. This guide is a suggestion for those who needed some guidance in responding. Please feel free to respond - or not respond - to the Day of Prayer as you wish,” Mancini wrote.

But that didn’t stop the emails, which flooded members’ inboxes all Tuesday afternoon. (UPDATE: One source says at least 30 emails were sent, including from people asking to be removed from the listerv. Feel free to send me the whole long thing if you have access.)

“Whole mess could’ve been avoided with a ‘BCC,’ ” one member commented in a secret Facebook group.

The TNDP State Executive Committee meets a week from Saturday, and it looks like it could be a tense meeting. But, then again, maybe it won’t be — because if there’s anything Tennessee Democrats are great at doing, it’s burying their heads in the sand and ignoring problems.

P.S. — If you do feel like praying tomorrow, keep the newly fired music minister from my neighborhood’s Catholic Church in your intercessions. After 10 years at the church, during which time the priest and other staff knew he was gay, John Thomas McCecil was fired for legally marrying his boyfriend. This is the type of discrimination Lee (and his church) supports, by the way. Exactly what Jesus would do!


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