Dispatches from the front lines of Perry’s political revival

Buried in his 13-minute speech/prayer/scripture-reading delivered Saturday before a throng of 30,000 faithful, Texas Governor Rick Perry delivered two lines with the slightest of smiles beneath the bright lights of Houston’s Reliant Stadium. He said the Almighty’s agenda is “not a political agenda, his agenda is a salvation agenda,” and that “He is a wise, wise God and he’s wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party.”

It was enough to convince headline writers across the state that the Gov had somehow managed to keep the weekend’s much-anticipated religious revival — the Perry-prompted “Response” — apolitical. Yet even the slightest of scratches on Perry’s polish shows otherwise.

Even as Perry delivered those words intended to appease separation-of-church-and-state hounds, he was flanked onstage by Alice Patterson, the founder of San Antonio’s Justice At The Gate ministries. It is Patterson who claims in her 2010 book Bridging the Racial and Political Divide: How Godly Politics Can Transform a Nation that the Democratic Party is run by a shadowy horde of (yes, this is a literalist bunch, remember) demons.

Amid the calls to defend marriage from homosexuals and end abortion, an even more fundamental refrain kept repeating: Threaded throughout a steady stream of speeches, amplified prayers, and music, was a political pulse calling the (again) “faithful” to drive the nation and her leaders “back to God.”

Another America was taking shape here.

Among the thousands of rank-and-file evangelicals were worshippers staring at the stadium rafters, some teary-eyed and speaking incoherently in tongues as Perry prayed with the fire of a revivalist preacher. “Father, our hearts break for America,” Perry said. “We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government. And, as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us, and for that we cry out for your forgiveness.”

Perry drew a swarm of criticism in announcing his sponsors for the event, which included fringe religious-right figureheads like the American Family Association, self-described as “on the frontlines of America’s culture war,” leaders within the controversial New Apostolic Reformation movement, and mega-church stars like San Antonio’s John Hagee.

“Many of the sponsors and endorsers of this event represent the extreme of religious conservatives,” Kathy Miller of the religious-right watchdog group Texas Freedom Network said last week. “They’re really on the fringe, from calling the Statue of Liberty a demonic symbol to suggesting that Oprah is the precursor to the anti-Christ” — views espoused by Response sponsors John Benefiel of the Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network and Mike Bickle of Kansas City’s International House of Prayer, respectively. “It’s disturbing, to say the least, that any elected official, including Governor Perry, would be willing to share the stage with people who have said those hateful and extremist things in the name of promoting their own narrow religious perspective,” Miller said.

And though he was mum on what his own role would be at the event, distancing himself and hinting that he may not speak at all, until the last minute, Perry took to the stage Saturday and owned the revival inside Reliant Stadium.

I found one source of the controversy plaguing Perry’s Response, AFA director of issue analysis Bryan Fischer, seated in the stands near the edge of the stadium floor. Fischer is one of the organization’s loudest voices, a man who holds homosexuals responsible for the Holocaust and asserts, among other things, that gays and Muslims should be banned from holding public office. While Fischer claims he had “no role whatsoever” in Perry’s event, the governor tapped the AFA, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center deems a hate group, to lead and underwrite the million-dollar event. “It’s the truth,” Fischer said when asked of his long stream of divisive comments. “I’m not going to apologize for speaking the truth.”

In our conversation, Fischer blamed the cloud of controversy around Perry’s Response on a “sweeping effort on the part of secular fundamentalists to hurt this event.” As we discussed religion’s role in policy-making, the seminal concern sparking much of the protest outside Reliant Stadium, Fischer insisted there’s no decoupling faith and politics — the Response, he eventually conceded, wasn’t really apolitical, because for a true believer, apolitical doesn’t exist.

Fischer pulled out a leather-bound journal and read a quote attributed to John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, that it is “the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” Stretching out his arm, pointing to the crowd of thousands gathered below us, Fischer remarked, “This is exactly what the founders wanted, what you see here today. … Our founders believed that our public policy should be aligned with the laws of nature and the laws of God. … Marriage is one of those things. Marriage is between one man and one woman, and we tamper with that at our peril.”

Fischer’s sentiment was echoed to some degree by nearly all of those I spoke to at the stadium, those on the front lines of the revival.

Elizabeth Hilton of Houston, who came to the Response with her father and two-year-old son, stuck to the back of the stadium, singing, praying, and lifting her arms to the sky, periodically writhing and jumping in a spiritual daze. Hilton, who said her husband is a “reformed homosexual” who repented after finding religion, spoke of her Christian faith with fire and passion. “We the church, God’s people, should be governing our nation,” she said. And Perry’s supposed presidential aspirations weren’t lost on her. “I’d love to see someone like Governor Perry, who truly fears God, in the White House.”

With his initiation of and presence at the Response, Perry showed his true colors, Hilton said. Perry was a political figure who wouldn’t tone down his evangelical faith. “He’s not afraid to say this nation is having an identity crisis, and we need to turn back to God, to Jesus Christ.”

Despite a whirlwind of controversy surrounding Hagee’s own stance on a host of issues, including past statements that God used the Holocaust to draw Jews back to Israel and that the Catholic Church is the “whore of Babylon,” the San Antonio pastor took to the pulpit Saturday to deliver a fiery prayer to the cheering crowd. In it, he lauded Perry for his role in the revival, in the fashioning of a new America, saying, “We pray for our governor Rick Perry, who has had the courage today to call this time of fasting and prayer just as Abraham Lincoln did in the darkest days of the Civil War. We thank you for his leadership, his integrity, and his loyalty to God and country.”

As his presidential run appears ever more imminent (reportedly, the official word could come as soon as this weekend), it’s a message Perry doesn’t appear to be avoiding. And the influence of evangelical ideology, even that of the fringe, won’t dissipate now that the Response has come and gone. As Politico first reported last week, the governor’s set for a Hill Country retreat hosted by prominent San Antonio billionaire Jim Leininger (who Molly Ivins called “the Daddy Warbucks of Texas social conservatism” and the Current knows simply as “God’s Sugar Daddy”) at the end of this month. Along with other confidants and social conservatives at the retreat will be WallBuilders’ founder David Barton, a speaker at Saturday’s event and a pseudo-historian popular with conservative politicians drawn to (or courting) the religious right. You know. People like Perry. The left-leaning People for the American Way recently drafted a scathing report on Barton, quoting modern academics who say Barton’s studies fusing religion and history are highly misleading and warning of Barton’s “growing visibility and influence with members of Congress and other Republican Party officials.”

In our conversation, AFA’s Fischer scoffed at claims from the left that, given the sponsors and leaders of Perry’s event, the Response excluded not only other religions but also other more moderate permutations of Christianity. “Everybody was invited here, we don’t care who you are. This is the most inclusive event in America today,” he said.

Yes, everyone’s invited to take part in this new America, one steeped in the influence of some of the most controversial figures in modern American Christianity.

Capping the Response Saturday, religious leaders called for the crowd to help spark the “Third Great Awakening in American history.” Bickle, with the Kansas City International House of Prayer, urged the crowd to help “transform every sphere of society with the glory of God,” including media, the marketplace, and the nation’s education system. But most of all, to help refashion government in the image of their God. •


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