Recently a Southern Baptist preacher from California was in the news because he was praying for the death of President Barack Obama. Wiley Drake of the First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park was practicing what he called “imprecatory prayer.”
To imprecate is to pray for or invoke a curse or harm upon another person. Drake has said there is a biblical mandate for such a prayer. In an interview, Drake made it clear he was praying not for an inconvenience, an embarrassment, or a bad fortune – a lost ATM card, party crashers at a state dinner, etc. No, he wanted Obama dead.
And he wasn’t alone. A handful of other pastors were doing the same. Pastor Steve Anderson of Faithful World Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., said he did not feel moved to pray for the benefit of the president, whom he described as “the socialist devil.” He said, “Nope. I’m not gonna pray for his good. I’m going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.”
First, I wondered how these pastors described their sermons on those bulletin boards you see outside churches, out by the sidewalk, announcing that week’s topic: “This Sunday: Opening God’s Can of Whoop-Ass”?
Second, I wondered why no one had charged them with attempted murder or conspiracy to commit murder.
There is a precedent for it.
In 1989, two men in Mississippi were charged with conspiracy to commit murder when they attempted to hire a voodoo priestess to kill a court judge with her special powers. John Henry Ivy and his half-brother Leroy were caught in a sting operation trying to obtain some hair belonging to Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner. They were upset with Gardner because of his sentencing of John Henry for armed robbery.
In the eyes of the district attorney, whether the two men could kill the judge with voodoo powers was irrelevant. What mattered was that they believed they could, so their actions were taken with the intent to kill another person.
The case never reached trial. The half-brothers pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
The case is included in a popular law school textbook, Criminal Law: Case Studies and Controversies by Paul Robinson, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The voodoo murder case is in a chapter that discusses a defense based upon “Impossibility.” A fuzzy area of the law is whether a person is guilty of attempted murder if it is impossible for the planned course of action to result in the intended victim’s death. For instance, we often say “if looks could kill,” but probably no one will be charged with attempted murder for giving the stink eye, even if he or she believes that look could kill.
But there ARE people who believe in voodoo. It is a religion, after all, and so it has faithful followers. They certainly believe in its powers. Perhaps they even believe in its powers to rob others of life or turn them into the undead – as Bill Pullman’s character found out in “The Serpent and the Rainbow” or as Star Jones discovered after she left “The View.”
And there certainly are people who believe in the power of prayer, since there are about 150 million Christians in the United States. I was raised in Southern Baptist churches, and I never heard prayers like those offered by Drake and Anderson. So I do not think their effort to recruit God in a regime change is indicative of some widely held sentiment or practice. But there probably is some kind of consensus among American Christians about the power of prayer. And the idea of charging Drake and Anderson with conspiracy to commit murder through “imprecatory prayer” has some interesting implications for those faithful millions.
Ronald Rychlak is a law professor at the University of Mississippi College of Law, and he commented on the 1989 case to the Associated Press: “The fascination is when you prosecute people with conspiracy to commit murder with voodoo, are you acknowledging the existence of voodoo?”
If Drake and Anderson were tried for conspiracy to commit murder, would that be the U.S. government acknowledging the power of prayer?
If the two preachers were found innocent with the Impossibility defense described in Robinson’s textbook, would that be the U.S. justice system saying that prayer is powerless?
Would Glenn Beck herniate a tear duct if that came to pass?
And wouldn’t Drake and Anderson reject the Impossibility defense for themselves? Accepting it would be sacrilegious for them, wouldn’t it? Certainly they would not say their public prayers were in vain.
Drake, at least, is off the hook. He says he has stopped praying for Obama’s death. He wants Obama to live now – so the president can be tried for treason.
That’s not exactly turning the other cheek, but it’s a start, I guess.
Scott Andrews teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge.