David J. Phillip/AP
Texas Gov. Rick Perry prays at a daylong rally in Houston on Saturday. Perry attended the prayer rally despite criticism that the event inappropriately mixes religion and politics.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry prays at a daylong rally in Houston on Saturday. Perry attended the prayer rally despite criticism that the event inappropriately mixes religion and politics. David J. Phillip/AP
It could have been a typical service at any megachurch in the South, with a tight band, a great choir, big-screen projection, and a large congregation swaying and praying. But the speaker who drew the biggest response at the prayer rally in Houston on Saturday was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, looking resplendent in a red tie and his much-envied mane of dark hair.
The often combative Republican governor did not attack his nemesis, Barack Obama, who Perry often accuses of overreaching and whom he may try to defeat at the polls next year.
In fact, Perry prayed for him.
"In these difficult times, father, we pray for our president, that you would impart your wisdom on him, that you would guard his family," he told a crowd of about 30,000 Christians at Reliant Stadium.
Perry seemed to take pains to de-politicize the event and turn it toward the Almighty.
"His agenda is not a political agenda," he said. "His agenda is a salvation agenda."
In the weeks leading up to it, the gathering had been widely criticized as a cynical creation of the governor to get an early lock on the religious right. Critics took note of the involvement of religious/political activists — men like David Lane and David Barton, well known in the Lone Star State for their talents at mobilizing Christian voters.
Perry shrugged off such talk.
"He's a wise God and he's wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party," he said to applause.
Later, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas took the stage to read from Second Chronicles and the Book of Matthew. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida sent a pre-recorded message. Nationally prominent Christian leaders attended, such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. The long list of speakers also included the controversial televangelist Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio's Cornerstone Church.
Outside, protesters lined the sidewalk, holding signs that read slogans like, "Pastor Perry Must Resign." Some of the demonstrators belonged to an atheist organization that sued unsuccessfully to stop the event, called The Response. Overhead, a small plane pulled a banner reading: "God keep state, church separated."
Back inside the arena, that sentiment was amplified by the Rev. Barry Lynn, longtime director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who flew down from Washington for the occasion.
"I've never seen any event that is created as a religious event but crafted by politician," he said. "But if any wall between elected officials and their religious faith was breached, it did not seem to bother those in attendance. Indeed, they relished Rick Perry's unvarnished profession of fealty to Jesus."
Linda Faust, a pastor's wife in Cleveland, about an hour from Houston, served as a usher at the event.
"I don't know many governors that call for fasting and prayer for a nation. And I applaud Gov. Perry for doing that," she said. "He didn't have to do that."
To humor the cynics for a moment: If the 61-year-old governor wanted to start rounding up evangelical votes for a soon-to-be-announced run for the White House, he made a very good head-start. Jason Cole, who drove a bus from the Church of Glad Tidings in Austin, was impressed.
"Yeah, I think it would be extremely beneficial to our nation to hear some of our top leaders, especially if he gets elected as president, to take stands like this," Cole said, "and preach from the White House, ultimately from the White House."
Later, Cole and his wife, Patty, closed their eyes tightly and held each other in an intimate prayer, unaware of the microphone.
"Take this time, Lord God, and allow it to infiltrate our lives. Not just this Saturday at Reliant Stadium, but father God everyday — in streets, home, cities, counties, Lord God," he said, "across our nation light a fire."
More than choosing a candidate for president, this is the hope that most people at the revival seemed to want to take home.