Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Gov. Bevin's call to pastors and spiritual leaders to pray for violence prone areas in Louisville's West End has stirred strong and unexpected reaction from some. He encouraged hundreds of pastors and spiritual leaders in attendance at Western Middle School to form small prayer groups and walk through neighborhoods in order to connect with God and their community a couple of times per week over the next year.

Ironically, two of his harshest critics are pastors—spiritual shepherds who are rejecting Kentucky's highest office holder interested in connecting with them on a spiritual level.  Pastor Joe Phelps didn't hide his disdain for Bevin's proposal in a column where he said he was "embarrassed for Christianity." He charged that prayer doesn't address the "root cause of violence: poverty."

Rev. Kevin Cosby's op-ed was equally critical of the event. In fact, he walked out before it was finished. Cosby reminded us about Louisville's deeply troubled history of institutional wrongs committed against the black community and the need for government to right those wrongs.

Cosby's eye-opening examples of racial discrimination should compel us all to stand against injustice. But we cannot miss the main point of what Gov. Bevin intended to do: call faith leaders to actively lead their congregations to engage their communities in a visible way and pray for the violence to end. Rev. Cosby unfortunately conflated that objective with the role government should take in restoring justice to the black citizens. The two issues may be related, but they're different discussions.

Cosby is right that "faith without works is dead." Followers of Jesus should have good works that correspond to their faith. The Christian community should lead in the restoration of the broken, and reconciliation where there is discord between the races. But to deny prayer as the first resort is unseemly for pastors.

To say, as Joe Phelps contends, that "violence is the child of poverty” is to reject the crisis of sin and the idea that violence at heart is a poverty of the soul. And it will take more than money and jobs and resources to fix. 

The call to prayer implies that there is a spiritual element to the breakdown in society.  Violence and murder are birthed from bitterness that leads to rage. And when rage is full grown it often ends in death as too often witnessed in Louisville which is on pace toward a record number of homicides in 2017.

Prayer is the first step to address this profound moral crisis.  It's also the first step to bring healing between the races and the starting point for justice to be pursued.

It took a prayer event to bring to the surface deep personal pain experienced from systemic racism suffered by many.  We should acknowledge the pain but we need to unpack what the event was about.

It was precipitated by the senseless killing of 7-year old Dequante Hobbs who was caught in his home by a stray bullet. The governor was deeply moved at the news, maybe because his son Danial is the same age. He's also black.

The governor called on the faith community to address the problem of violence. It only makes sense that faith leaders would be asked to pray.  As attendee Robbie Phillips said "If he had called upon teachers he would have talked about education and not talked about potholes… . If he had talked to a construction crew, he'd have talked about potholes, but he called people of faith and [encouraged them] to pray."

No other governor in recent memory has tapped into the faith community to engage moral and spiritual issues. And he follows a tradition of political leaders appealing to prayer in times of war, disease and tragedy. 

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson drafted a Resolution for a “Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer." In 1849, Pres. Taylor called the nation to prayer over a cholera outbreak. In 1863, Pres. Lincoln called the nation to pray for the end of the Civil War.  On August 16, 1945 Pres. Truman declared a day of Prayer and Thanksgiving as World War II came to an end.

Prayer doesn't cut against the grain of our political fabric. It is part of it. Gov. Bevin's appeal to prayer, takes humility and courage. Humility in that it's an acknowledgment of God—a greater authority above him. Courage in that there could be political fallout and cost him his job.

For people who embrace ideals like the Golden Rule, loving their neighbor as themselves, and sharing grace and mercy, the great common denominator isn't a particular social program, but rather the God who provides a Mediator who reconciles the hearts of sinful people to a holy God. Reconciliation with God makes possible reconciliation within community. But it all begins with prayer.

This column appeared in the June 13, 2017 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal and June 14, 2017 edition of USA Today..