ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue stepped up to a podium outside the state Capitol on Tuesday and led a solemn crowd of several hundred people in a prayer for rain on his drought-stricken state.
“We’ve come together here simply for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm,” Perdue said after a choir provided a hymn.
Georgia and its neighboring states are caught in an epic drought that threatens public water supplies. Perdue has ordered water restrictions, launched a legal battle against the release of water from federal reservoirs and appealed to President Bush.
“It’s time to appeal to Him who can and will make a difference,” Perdue told the crowd.
The hourlong event was billed as an interfaith ceremony but only three Protestant ministers joined Perdue, who is a Baptist, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
Nearby, some 20 demonstrators from the Atlanta Freethought Society staged a protest against the holding of a religious observance at the seat of state government.
Meteorologists said earlier this week there was a slight possibility of rain Tuesday, but less of a chance of precipitation was predicted for the rest of the week.
“I believe in miracles,” declared Pastor Maurice Watson of Beulahland Bible Church. “How about you?”
While public prayer vigils might raise eyebrows in other parts of the nation, they are mostly shrugged off in the Bible Belt, where turning to the heavens for help is common and sometimes even politically expedient.
"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 wasn't 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."
Opposition to public prayer
The loudest opposition to Perdue's move has come from the Atlanta Freethought Society, a secular group that 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."
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 has devastated crops and bankrupted farmers Down Under.
In the U.S., public expressions of faith are often discouraged as a breach of the separation of church and state.
Thomas Jefferson, for one, resisted 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.
Prayer rally, concert
With rivers and reservoirs dropping to dangerously low levels across the region, a prayer rally at a high school football stadium in the Georgia town of Watkinsville drew more than 100 worshippers last week, and a gospel concert dedicated to 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 crisis has worsened. Over the summer, he participated in a day of prayer for agriculture at a gathering of the Georgia Farm Bureau.
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