If you’re like most of the US this summer, you are currently living in a region experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. According to Reuters (via Yahoo News*), 60% of the contiguous 48 states are now in drought, with a state of natural disaster declared in nearly 1300 counties across this great land.
You might hope our government would be on top of the situation, engaging the public in a serious discussion of the likely causes (climate change, anyone?) and short- or long-term measures that might be needed to deal with a situation that will affect millions if not billions of people in our country and, as the top grain exporter in the world, across the globe.
Well, I’ll let you be the judge of how seriously the worst natural disaster in US history is being taken. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told reporters that faced with the current situation, “I get on my knees everyday and I’m saying an extra prayer right now […] If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.” And then, at least according to the Reuters/Yahoo News article, he went on to discuss the economic effects of the drought on farmers and the stock market, but no mention of why there might be a drought or what concrete solutions there might be for those in drought regions.
Let’s give Mr. Vilsack the benefit of the doubt and assume he was joking about the rain dance and “rain prayer.” Is the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farmers, as well as millions of people worldwide who may be affected by not having access to affordable food, really something to joke about?
But perhaps a more important question is: is he truly going down on his knees to pray “everyday” for more rain? If we take him at his word, it sounds like it. I suppose if he wants to waste his breath on his own time talking to a sky god who apparently would withhold much-needed rain from his creation if he doesn’t hear enough prayers (wonder what the quota is?), then Mr. Vilsack is free to do so on his own time in private.
In his role as Secretary of Agriculture, however, one of the highest-ranking officials in the country, he is representing the American government and all of its people when he is speaking as a public figure. Instead of cracking jokes about rain dances and discussing his religious practices, why is he not engaging the country in an actual discussion of this recording-breaking heat and drought? For example:
- What he or his fellow cabinet members can or cannot do to aid farmers should the drought continue and decimate this year’s yields
- What the science says about how likely this year’s conditions are just a freak blip or more likely a foretaste of what’s still to come
- Which steps need to be taken this year or in the future to deal with extreme weather conditions
- How average citizens can or cannot help (using less water so that more can go to farmers? practicing fire safety to avoid causing fires in the city or countryside?).
To be fair, it is possible the secretary touched on some or all of these issues, but the article left them out. If this is the case, maybe he should realize that he should be on message and not talking about whether or not he thinks his god is going to send rain our way one of these days, but rather what government officials should actually be talking about: governing the country. Hopefully the drought will soon be coming to an end, but if not we need to know our officials are looking for real-world solutions and not just hoping for a Deus Ex Machina.
UPDATE: FFRF (the Freedom From Religion Foundation) was also offended by our Agriculture Secretary’s religious remarks. Here is their press release and letter to Tom Vilsack
* Note: As is seemingly becoming more and more common, news sites are updating their articles and sometimes significantly changing the content (not just correcting typos, or posting add-on updates as above.). As of this update, the Yahoo News story is almost completely rewritten from what it was last night, and does not even mention the praying that was in the original headline for the story. The Indian Express has the article in its original form, or at least the form I saw it in originally.