Prayer, piety and God is what “The Response” was about, according to those organizing Gov. Rick Perry’s all-day prayer and fast last weekend — but critics said the governor was playing political opportunist, using religion to fuel his presidential aspirations.
Representatives for both Perry and the event defended the governor’s mission all the way, saying the rally was never about politics but about focusing on the spiritual, “It’s not about a particular man, it’s about a movement of people who want to come together and pray,” rally spokesman Eric Bearse told the Texas Independent.
While the Houston event’s speakers treaded carefully around “Perry for president” talk — observing federal restrictions imposed on the tax-exempt nonprofit American Family Association, which bankrolled the event — there was no shortage of political language on the stage at Perry’s rally.
‘Only Biblical principles can save us’
The list of event endorsers is marked by an overwhelmingly Republican base, including former Texas State Senator Mike Richards; Timothy Johnson, a former vice-chairman of the North Carolina GOP; and Wayne Hamilton, former head of the Republican Party of Texas who served as Perry’s executive director on two of his Inaugural Committees and now works as a consultant for the governor.
Of the 49 governors invited to the rally, only two appeared at the event, both of them Republican (Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Gov. Rick Scott, who appeared on screen).
During the event Perry shared the stage with conservative Republican evangelicals and even delivered a warm embrace to event organizer Alice Patterson, who has said the Democratic Party is an “invisible network of evil, controlled by demonic forces.”
“Response” endorsers are not only a who’s-who of the religious right, but a highly influential group of tight-knit evangelical political mobilizers who have carried conservative Republicans like former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee.
Other event endorsers were found earlier this year to be planning a strategy to unseat Pres. Barack Obama in 2012, according to Ethics Daily, in a series of prayer and pastor gatherings. Called by televangelist James Robison, the two sets of closed-door meetings in Texas were attended by roughly 80 pastors and conservative Christian leaders.
The meetings featured a cast of conservative Republican players like former U.S. Representative and Republican Party lobbyist Bob McEwen, controversial historian and head of Texas-based WallBuilders David Barton and Don Wildmon, founder of the AFA, all of whom acted as primary endorsers to Perry’s most recent prayer rally.
California Pastor Jim Garlow, a “Response” participant and attendee of the secretive sessions, told the Texas Independent in an interview at the prayer rally that claims linking those meetings to a plan to remove Obama from securing a second presidential term were false.
“The idea that we were there to get a governor elected president was not discussed one single time,” said Garlow, an activist, who coordinated a rally for California’s Proposition 8, a measure eliminating marriage rights of same-sex couples. “Someone did say Perry has been anointed to lead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean as president,” he added.
Garlow stressed the apolitical nature of the event, saying endorsers had merely come to pray. Garlow himself is anything put apolitical — joining Barton, he heads Renewing American Leadership (ReAL), Gingrich’s nonprofit aimed at attracting conservative voters. The presidential hopeful sought to align himself with this network of conservative Christian leaders to win over the evangelical vote before heading to pivotal Republican presidential nominating contests in Iowa and South Carolina.
“Political parties cannot save us, candidates cannot save us, only Biblical principles supported by whoever is elected can save us,” said Garlow, suggesting the fight to garner the support of his network of evangelical leaders will be won by the candidate who puts religion before politics.
‘Not a political agenda’
Before 30,000-plus prayer participants, Perry smirked onstage when he denied political influence in his event, saying, “His agenda is not a political agenda, his agenda is a salvation agenda […] He’s a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party, or for that matter, he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any man-made institutions.”
Barely two days after the well-attended event drew national press coverage, Perry declared he would venture to South Carolina where he is expected to officially announce his run for presidency. Perry also plans to make stops in Iowa and New Hampshire this weekend, hitting key early voting states. Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics project and government professor at The University of Texas, said the timing is no coincidence. Perry’s prayer rally was a skillfully orchestrated event, planned very deliberately at the cusp of a possible presidential announcement.
But none of this should surprise people, Henson told the Texas Independent, because Perry has always tailored his appeal to different parts of the base in a highly focused way, to great success.
It is no wonder then that following his major evangelical-backed prayer rally, Perry flocks to two states where evangelicals have comprised 60 percent of the vote in Republican nomination contests, according to 2008 exit polls.
“I think ‘The Response’ was clearly a calculated event, timed so the Perry campaign could increase their buzz with conservative Christians and set the stage for this weekend,” Henson said. “While there were some potential pitfalls, they avoided them for the most part and it ran more or less like clockwork. The event really helped solidify him with that part of the base.”