Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee plans to proclaim Oct. 10 as an "official day of prayer and fasting for our state," saying his inspiration comes from "countless" Tennesseans telling him they have offered prayers on behalf of him and his family.
In a video posted last week to his Twitter account, the Republican governor says he's "deeply" appreciative for the prayers, adding "we know that God hears them, we know that prayer accomplishes much."
Lee, who often described himself as a "man of faith" during his 2018 bid for governor, said in the video that "prayer strengthens our families and it strengthens our communities, it strengthens our relationship with our neighbors, it strengthens our relationship with God himself."
The governor said he and his wife, Maria, plan to take the day to "offer prayers of healing, prayers for forgiveness, prayers for thanksgiving and prayers of hope for our state and the 6.7 million who call Tennessee home."
And he is inviting "all Tennesseans to join with us, in their homes, in their communities and their places of worship, to fast and to pray for God's favor and blessing on the people of Tennessee."
In a state ranked No. 3 nationally in a Pew Research Center 2016 survey in the percentage of adults who say they consider themselves "highly religious" — 73% — Lee's plan, or at least the prayer aspect, is likely to find favor here.
But not everyone is applauding.
Rebecca Markert, legal director for the national Freedom from Religion Foundation, said, "not only is it inappropriate for a governor to sort of exhort citizens to pray on a particular day, what's upsetting about this announcement that Oct. 10 is going to be a day of prayer and fasting is just how much he talked about the importance of prayer and how God hears prayers and answers them."
That, Markert added, "is making people of nonfaith really excluded in his state. You know, there are people in the state of Tennessee that don't believe in the power of prayer. And it is not the governor's job to tell everybody they should pray on a particular day."
The lack of details in Lee's announcement raises questions on how inclusive it will be for the various faith traditions in the state. Chattanooga is home to followers of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and the Baha'i faith. One in five state residents are not affiliated with a religion, according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute.
Rabbi Craig Lewis of Mizpah Congregation in Chattanooga said the day could be a great opportunity for people to gather, as long as the groups are respectful of the many faith traditions in Tennessee.
"Prayer is a good thing," Lewis said. "And to have a day of prayer in our state is a good thing as long as it leaves open the possibility for everyone to pray in their own way."
But the fasting aspect creates a problem for Jews this year in their faith's lunar calendar. Lee's Oct. 10 date comes immediately after Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of repentance and atonement.
Jews will be fasting from sunset Oct. 8 to sunset Oct. 9 for Yom Kippur, Lewis said. And Jewish tradition bars Jews from fasting two days in a row, he noted. So members of Tennessee's Jewish communities not fasting on the governor's designated day should not be viewed as them not participating, Lewis said.
"While there is no objection to prayer, because all prayer can be helpful declaring a day of fasting after all the Jews in the state have fasted for a day seems a little insensitive," Lewis said.
Fasting, too, is not an arbitrary act, Lewis said. In the Jewish tradition, the practice is done in times of mourning and to reflect on mistakes. Lee did not say what state residents should be mourning or what mistakes they should reflect on.
Lewis said he assumes the governor had the best of intentions in announcing the day, but Lee could have been more thoughtful in his announcement and timing to make the event more inclusive.
Lee's press secretary, Laine Arnold, said in a statement that, "as the Governor articulated in his video message, he and Maria are thankful for the countless prayers people offer on their behalf and want to in turn offer a dedicated day to pray for our state and residents."
It's an "invitation to pray, reflect and fast and is free for individuals to engage [in] as they see fit," Arnold emphasized, noting that "throughout history, from governors to presidents, the invitation to prayer and fasting has been a way to unite neighbors in thanksgiving, repentance, wisdom, etc., and Gov. Lee views this call as a table that is open for everyone."
Speaking later, Lee communications director Chris Walker added, "join us if you like. Obviously we respect the right of anyone not to." Asked if Lee himself plans to fast, Walker said yes.
Fasting is an integral part of many traditions, from the month of Ramadan in the Islamic faith to the Lenten fast in Christianity. Bassam Issa, co-founder of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, said the practice of fasting is often done as a reminder of what is important and an exercise in self-control for a greater purpose.
Any time set aside to pray and be reflective is good, Issa said. This could be a day for people of various faiths to come together, he said.
Other governors have proclaimed a day of prayer with Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota doing so just this year in response to flooding. Other governors have made similar proclamations in the past. And since 1952, the United States has had a statutorily enacted National Day of Prayer, with governors sometimes issuing related proclamations.
Lee spokeswoman Arnold said, "prayer is an umbrella that covers the gamut of human experience and isn't strictly regulated to disaster or tragedy."
According to Pew Research Center, 81% of Tennessee adults identify as Christian, with 52% saying they are evangelical Protestants and 13% identifying with a mainline Protestant denomination. Jews and Muslims account for 1% each.
One percent of Tennesseans identified as atheists, while another 3% said they are agnostic. Another 11% said they were not identified with "anything in particular."
In regard to Lee's expected call for a day of prayer, Freedom from Religion's Markert said that when it comes particularly to people of nonfaiths "why do we have to do that? Or why is our governor telling us that this is something that's important and citizens should do?"
Citing the country's long history of setting aside moments to pray, Doug Daugherty, president of the Chattanooga-based Hamilton Flourishing, said a day of prayer sets a positive tone for the state.
"I think our nation needs it," Daugherty said. "In Tennessee, it's a good time to be thankful. It's great to stop and thank God for that."
While the state still faces racial and socioeconomic division, the day of prayer can be a time of healing and a unified effort for a cause, Daugherty said.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.
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