Following months of hype, speculation and protesting, tens of thousands of worshipers gathered in Houston’s Reliant Stadium Saturday to join Gov. Rick Perry for “The Response,” a prayer and fast event headlined by a who’s-who of major — and sometimes controversial — evangelical Christian leaders.
Since he announced the event in June, Perry’s been dogged by concerns about his partnership with the staunchly anti-gay American Family Association, which bankrolled the million-dollar event, and controversial figures like San Antonio preacher John Hagee, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins.
Perry and event spokesmen remained vague, right up until the weekend, about just who would appear onstage, even whether Perry would speak at all. For a while, it appeared as though none of the 49 other governors Perry invited would turn up for the rally, and that the crowd might occupy a fraction of the 70,000-capacity Reliant Stadium.
But the event appeared to run smoothly, with an alternating program of scripture readings, sermons, songs and small group prayer. The crowd peaked at 30,000 in the early afternoon, according to the organizers’ count, as devotees from the floor to the second deck stood and swayed, reaching to the rafters with their Bibles and outstretched hands.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback turned up, after all, to read a passage, while Florida Gov. Rick Scott appeared in a recording to offer prayers for the country’s hard times. Some religious leaders offered shades of the language that has made them so controversial — Dobson opened the event by comparing America’s modern moral condition to Nazism — but there were none of the now-infamous jabs at Oprah or the Statue of Liberty.
AFA spokesman Bryan Fischer, a source of much of the organization’s most extreme language, kept a low profile at the event, though he tweeted from the crowd throughout the day, relishing how little the mainstream media would find to ridicule at the event, and worrying about bears.
What remained were the concerns that critics raised almost immediately — about Perry’s political opportunism, calling the event so close to an announcement that he’s running for president — and the appearance of state participation in an event exclusive to one religion.
At the stadium, though, those concerns were raised by a relative few, the couple dozen protesters that braved the heat with signs, a few rainbow flags and, for some reason, one Santa Claus suit. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which tried to sue to keep Perry from attending, paid for a plane to circle the stadium with a banner that read, “Gov—Keep state-church separate.”
Disagreements surfaced occasionally — some yelling back and forth between the sidewalk and a stadium balcony, one man with a megaphone urging protesters to repent — but inside the air-conditioned arena there was none of that.
Seated, standing or waiting in long lines for food, the crowd heard some political messages about the troubled economy or unemployment, but the day’s primary message was that politicians have failed where only God can succeed.
Joshua Gee, who came to the event from nearby Beaumont, Tex., said he knew there were political issues swirling around “The Response,” but just barely.
“They mentioned abortion,” Gee said after a few hours of the prayer service. “I literally have not thought about that for so long. I just shut myself in, I don’t read the news. I just read my Bible.”
“We’ve turned away,” Gee said, worried that even politics today had been taken over by modern interests in Hollywood and technology. The important thing, Gee said, was to “rally up and get the church back together,” otherwise there will be consequences. “God,” he said, “he’s loving, but he’s also about wrath and justice.”
Leading up to the event, organizers repeatedly beat back accusations that “The Response” was meant to exclude Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths, but the message from the stage Saturday was one of narrowly defined religion, calling for Jesus’ presence in politics, media and American culture.
Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, spoke in the early afternoon, among a few who called for a “Third Great Awakening” in the U.S.
“In this humanistic culture today, people are talking about love without talking about Jesus Christ,” Bickle said. “All these other religions, they can say what they say. There is no other god but Jesus Christ…. It’s time to come out in the open. It’s time to go public, regardless of what it costs us.”
Vonette Bright, whose late husband Bill founded Campus Crusade for Christ, called for the 10 Commandments to be displayed in classrooms across the country.
Another speaker prayed, “Let worship break out in the classroom, and permeate it with prayer,” asking for “the power of the holy spirit to grip” principals, parents and students.
Christina Vassar, who drove for the rally from Fort Worth, said she was most impressed by the diversity of the crowd, referring specifically to the branches of Christianity that came together for the rally, she said. (Though the crowd was predominantly white, it was also full of black, Latino and Asian-American worshipers.) “It was like everybody threw off everything and just ran for Jesus,” Vassar said.
Like Gee, Vassar said the stakes were high and time was running short. “I think sin is coming to fullness. Where it says, ‘the earth is crying out,’” she said, that’s what she sees happening today, in earthquakes and natural disasters around the world. It’s God’s response, she said, to “perversion,” sex trafficking and pornography. “It starts out with one click of a button on a computer,” Vassar said.
“We’ve been praying for God to invade Washington,” Vassar said, and she hopes Perry has begun a trend among public leaders with his role in “The Response,” even if it was a long time coming. “I hope so,” she said. “We’ve been praying for it, so why should we be surprised?”
By law, the nonprofit AFA couldn’t endorse Perry’s candidacy for office, and it’s a line the group has walked many times before. Saturday, the crowd followed organizers’ requests to avoid any overtly political signs of clothes — the American flag was a common motif on shirts, but nothing about elections.
But after hours of prayer for leadership to let Christianity drive the nation, Perry returned to the podium to close out the event, exuding just that sort of power. He thanked Don Wildmon, founder of the AFA. He asked for a quiet moment to pray for those killed in the Friday night helicopter crash in Afghanistan. And he prayed with the crowd that all those outside the arena will accept God into their lives.
“I sincerely pray,” Perry said, “that our willingness to stand in the public square, to acknowledge the God who made us, will inspire others to open their minds and their hearts to His love.”
Perry paused between thoughts, and a woman yelled from the front of the crowd, “Lead us, governor.”
Read more coverage of “The Response” from the Texas Independent, and scroll down for more photos from the event. Here’s video from Perry’s closing remarks: