In the aftermath of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer rally, “The Response,” commentators are marveling at the governor’s ability to combine religion and politics so seamlessly that he was able to “cry out” for God’s “forgiveness” and “pray for our nation’s leaders,” for a moment seeming to forget that he was, in fact, one of those leaders. Perry was clearly trying to de-politicize the event’s rhetoric as far as he could, considering that early in the event, several speakers took the stage to pray for the end of abortion in America.
“[God's] agenda is not a political agenda,” Perry said. “His agenda is a salvation agenda.” He seemed understandably eager to stress that he, like all leaders, was bound ultimately to obedience to a higher power. ”Father, our heart breaks for America,” he 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.”
The estimated attendance – 30,000 – was smaller than organizers hoped, but still significant. Although many of the upper rows of Houston’s Reliant Stadium were empty, many of the people who came out to the seven-hour prayer marathon (fasting was supposed to be part of the event as well, but according to reporters, the lines for food stands were long) said that they would support Perry as a presidential candidate. Analysts are pointing to Perry as a potential Republican front-runner, should he choose to throw his hat in the ring.
The event’s relative success signals just how powerful the evangelical religious right has become. As Sarah Posner observes at Religion Dispatches,
“That a sitting governor would laugh off charges that his ‘instigation’ of an exclusively Christian—and, more specifically, a certain kind of Christian—event is proof of the success of the cultural and spiritual warriors, who believe they are commanded to ‘take dominion’ over government and other spheres of influence.”
Protesters lined the sidewalks outside the event. Some belonged to the atheist organization which tried unsuccessfully to block Perry’s attendance at the event; others criticized Perry’s choice to closely affiliate himself with the American Family Association, which has been dubbed a “hate group” because of its anti-gay stances.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Paul Horwitz, a professor of law at the University of Alabama, cautioned against rejecting the presence of religion in the public sphere entirely. Other leaders like Abraham Lincoln, he pointed out, used prayer during times of deep national discord. The difference, Horwitz explains, is Perry’s divisive rhetoric.
“With characteristic humility,” Horwitz wrote, “Lincoln called for repentance, not sectarian struggle. He saw human inequality and cruelty as the real sin against God. By emphasizing creeds, not deeds, Mr. Perry encourages the very divisions that Lincoln believed lay at the root of America’s ills.”
Certainly, the difference between the protesters on the sidewalk and the devoutly praying “Response” attendees is striking. Sectarian divisions in America seem to be stretched to a breaking point. And despite Perry’s claims that God does not affiliate with political parties, this decidedly exclusive event may have done much for Perry’s presidential prospects. The question is whether Perry sees a place in America for those who choose not to pray to his God for the nation’s salvation.
Photo from Gage Skidmore via flickr.