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Pray for rain? Seems natural in the South

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA — As Georgia descends deeper into drought, Gov. Sonny Perdue has ordered water restrictions, launched a legal battle and asked President Bush for help.

On Tuesday, the governor will call on a higher power: He is joining lawmakers and ministers on the steps of the state Capitol to pray for rain.

While such public prayer vigils may turn heads in other parts of the nation, they're mostly shrugged off in the South, where turning to the heavens for help can be not only common but sometimes even politically expedient.

"It's just more acceptable in the South. Christianity has more of a place in the culture here than in some other region," said Ray Van Neste, a professor of Christian studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. "And it's only natural, in a way, for the public to pray for rain."

Perdue won't be the first governor to hold a call for public prayer during the epic drought gripping the Southeast. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley issued a proclamation declaring a week in July as "Days of Prayer for Rain" to "humbly ask for His blessings and to hold us steady in times of difficulty."

And Perdue's move certainly hasn't provoked much opposition. The loudest critic has been the Atlanta Freethought Society, a secular group which is expecting about a dozen of its 125 members to protest at the vigil.

"The governor can pray when he wants to," said Ed Buckner, who is organizing the protest. "What he can't do is lead prayers in the name of the people of Georgia."

The political instinct to pray for rain in the South isn't hard to understand, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

Studies show religion plays a more active role in the lives of residents here, politicians included.

Prayer outside the South

"I don't know if it would really hurt a politician outside the South, but they'd be less likely to think about it," said Bullock, who specializes in Southern politics. "If religion plays less of a role in your daily life, then turning to religion in a crisis would be less likely to occur to you."

Political heavyweights outside the U.S. are known to occasionally plead to the heavens for rain. In May, Australian Prime Minister John Howard asked churchgoers to pray for rain in hopes of snapping a drought that's devastated crops and bankrupted farmers, one of the worst to hit Australia in a century.

In the U.S., public pleas for rain have sometimes gotten snagged in the familiar church-versus-state argument.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, long bucked the calls for a federal day of prayer. But he was an exception.

From George Washington — who declared "a day of prayer and thanksgiving" — to Harry Truman, who established a National Day of Prayer — American politicians have not been shy about associating themselves with petitions to the Almighty.

About a third of the Southeast is now mired in the worst stages of drought. As dry conditions linger and water levels drop, prayer vigils for rain are springing up around the region.

A prayer rally at a high school football stadium in the North Georgia town of Watkinsville drew more than 100 worshippers last week, and a gospel concert in the name of rain attracted hundreds more two weeks ago at an Atlanta church.

"We need to try a different approach," said Rocky Twyman, who organized the concert. "We need to call on God, because what we're doing isn't working. We think that instead of all this fussing and fighting, Gov. Perdue and all these others would come together and pray."

A Baptist, Perdue has several times mentioned the need for prayer — along with water conservation — as the state's drought crisis has worsened. Over the summer, he participated in day of prayer for agriculture at a gathering of the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon, Ga.

At Tuesday's event, several Protestant ministers will join Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle on the steps of the Capitol to ask God for help. "Hopefully people have been praying," Perdue said before organizing the vigil. "We are really considering a statewide vigil in that effort."

A few steps away, the secular activists will stand in protest, a reminder of sorts that not everyone is OK with the public prayer vigil.

"We don't elect officials to lead us on religious issues," said Buckner. "I'd be just as opposed to the governor convening a bunch of atheists on state grounds to talk about how foolish prayer is."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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