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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The economy is going to dominate next year's election, and we turn now to a Republican widely expected to enter the race for president. Texas Governor Rick Perry is hosting a religious revival in Houston tomorrow, to pray for what he calls a nation in crisis. And that prayer rally has touched off a holy war with critics who claim that it's less spiritual than political.

Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT: Late last year, shortly after he won his third term, Rick Perry began to envision the event that they're now calling The Response.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis, and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God's help. That's why I'm calling on Americans to pray and fast like Jesus did.

BURNETT: An event spokesman who's a former Perry speechwriter says the daylong affair will be filled with prayer, inspirational messages, scripture readings and praise music. More than 8,000 people have registered for the prayer rally, which is being held in the 71,000-seat Reliant Stadium, normally used for rodeos and NFL games.

Perry invited all of his fellow governors. Sam Brownback of Kansas initially accepted, but he's now backing away. His office says Brownback is on vacation, and if he goes, it's at his discretion and on his dime.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: James Dobson founded Focus on the Family but is no longer associated with the group. He is a Family Talk radio broadcaster.]

Among prominent religious leaders expected to speak: James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Perry is not scheduled to speak.

Other names on the list of coordinators and endorsers have raised eyebrows.

Mr. DAN QUINN (Communications Director, Texas Freedom Network): I mean, when you're talking the religious right, this is the fringe of the fringe here.

BURNETT: Dan Quinn is communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based watchdog group that tracks the far right in Texas.

Mr. QUINN: This is - clearly - when you look at it, kind of a combination of religious extremism and naked partisan politics, all in one. And I think it's probably one of the most cynical displays of using faith as a political tool that we've seen in a long time.

BURNETT: The event is being paid for by the American Family Association, which describes itself as being on the front lines of America's culture war. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes the AFA as a hate group because of its fierce anti-gay agenda.

Other participants are John Hagee, a San Antonio evangelist whose endorsement John McCain rejected in 2008 because of Hagee's anti-Catholic statements; Mike Bickle, a founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Missouri, who's called Oprah Winfrey a pastor of the harlot of Babylon; and then there's John Benefiel, head of the Oklahoma-based Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network.

And then there's John Benefiel, head of the Oklahoma-based Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network.

Dr. JOHN BENEFIEL (Senior Pastor, Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network): Do you know there's a statue in New York Harbor called the Statue of Liberty? You know where we got it from? French freemasons. Listen, folks: That is an idol, a demonic idol, right there in the middle of New York Harbor.

BURNETT: The gathering in Houston appears, to some observers, as an early attempt to line up support of conservative evangelicals in Perry's expected presidential run.

The event's executive committee includes religious political activists David Lane and Jim Garlow as well as Wayne Hamilton and David Barton, both former officials of the Texas Republican Party.

But wait - organizers say don't condemn an event before it happens.

Dr. DOUG STRINGER (Founder, Somebody Cares): We do need to come together to pray and to seek the Lord on behalf of our nation. And if we can do that without being against anything, then I will be pleased to be a part of it.

BURNETT: Doug Stringer runs a Christian world outreach ministry in Houston, called Somebody Cares. Stringer says he only agreed to be an organizer if they guaranteed there will no long-winded sermons or political speeches.

Dr. STRINGER: And so as a result, they have allowed me to be a part - of being a prayer captain to make sure that if anything begins to go off track, to what I feel like it should be focused on the Lord and prayer and worship, then I can come to the microphone and kind of give redirection to it.

BURNETT: Yet the response remains divisive. Earlier this week, 50 Houston religious leaders, led by the Anti-Defamation League, signed a letter expressing their concern that the Texas governor - and possible presidential candidate - is sending an official message of religious exclusion to non-Christian Texans. An event spokesman insists everyone is welcome.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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