A Rain Dance Is Not About Rain

August 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rick Perry is about to toss his hats into the ring. Perry wears two public hats – politician and preacher – though the millinery styles are so similar it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. Last Saturday, Perry was preaching at the Christian rally he organized. This Saturday, he’ll officially announce his candidacy for president at a political rally in South Carolina.

A political campaign, of course, is all about winning, presumably in order to carry out effective policy and solve the nation’s problems. A religious rally is all about . . .

Well, according to Gov. Perry, it’s pretty much about the same thing. Here’s what he said when he launched the idea:
Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.
His supporters echoed this idea of the religious rally as problem-solving
In a video created for the event, a diverse group of residents recite a litany of ailments afflicting the country, including unemployment, injustice, abuse, terrorism, depression and personal fears, such as addiction, preventing parents from fighting and a young girl asking for her daddy to love her. In response, they say they will lift up our cry to Jesus, through worship. (Quoted in Texas Independent, June 6)
Durkheim had a different take on the purpose of a rally. Rallies, whether religious gatherings or pep rallies, are rituals, and regardless of the ostensible objectives, the real goal of a ritual is group solidarity. As Robin Hanson might put it, rain dances are not about rain.

Even the rallyists know this. They judge the pep rally on how much school spirit it generates. If we’re all together in fervent unison, cheering for our side and generating power-plant levels of energy, it’s a great pep rally. If the team goes out the next day and loses 56-3, we don’t judge the pep rally a failure and demand that the cheerleaders be fired. Similarly, if a few months or a year or two, we still have high levels of unemployment, injustice, and abuse; if terrorism is still a potent threat; and if the soil of Texas is still parched and cracked from drought; nobody in Perryland will look back and say, “Gee, maybe that rally thing was a waste of time.”

In fact, back in April, Gov. Perry (or is it Rev. Perry), proclaimed “the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” It would be irrelevant to point out that last month was the second driest July in the recorded history of the Lone Star State.

Irrelevant because, as Durkheim says, the true object of a rally or any ritual is not the economy or climate or terrorism. It’s the group itself. That’s why the generally accepted measure of a rally’s success is how many people show up. Beyond the body count, we also look to estimates of more subjective qualities – unity and emotional arousal; these, too, are properties of the group, not the outside world.

So a good ritual heightens group solidarity. The downside of that effect is that although the ritual increases solidarity within the group, it can be divisive for the society as a whole. Rituals firm up group boundaries. They emphasize the borderline between the group members and everyone else. The Perry rally was a Christian event. To attend was to acknowledge Jesus. It highlighted the line between Christians and non-Christians. Some people criticized Perry for this sectarianism. They argued that the governor was supposed to represent all the people, not just one religion. As if to confirm this criticism, Perry told the assembled, “ Indeed the only thing that you love more [than the US] is the living Christ.”

To appreciate how extraordinary and potentially divisive this statement is imagine an American Muslim leader telling a rally of co-religionists, “We love Islam even more than we love America.” The people at Fox News would go apoplectic, and thousands of their good Christian viewers would be sending e-mails calling for the execution of these traitors.

The counter-argument is that Perry was acting as a private citizen, not as governor. Maybe so, but that argument might have been more convincing if Perry had taken Durkheim to heart – that is, if he had not promoted his rally as a solution to external economic and political problems.  Or maybe not. A ritual is inherently divisive, though that divisiveness often remains invisible to the participants. Outsiders however, those who are not in the group, can clearly see the line in the sand drawn by the ritual.  Perhaps the governor of Texas should be a uniter, not a divider.

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