JOHN YDSTIE, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Texas Governor Rick Perry held a controversial prayer rally in Houston yesterday. It was called The Response. According to organizers, some 30,000 Christians came from across the state to huge Reliant Stadium, to pray for what they called a nation in crisis. Governor Perry, who's expected to join the race for president, sidestepped politics and hot-button social issues and kept the focus on God, even as protesters lined the sidewalks in the sweltering heat outside. NPR's John Burnett reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JOHN BURNETT: It could have been a typical service at any mega-church 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 was Texas Governor Rick Perry, looking resplendent in his 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 who he may try to defeat at the polls next year. In fact, Perry prayed for him.
G: In these difficult times, Father, we pray for our president, that you would impart your wisdom on him, that you would guard his family.
BURNETT: Perry seemed to take pains to de-politicize the event and turn it toward the Almighty.
PERRY: His agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS, APPLAUSE)
BURNETT: In the weeks leading up to this gathering, it had been widely criticized as a cynical creation of the governor to get an early lock on the religious right vote. 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. At the pulpit, Perry shrugged off such talk.
PERRY: He is a wise, wise God - and he's wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party.
BURNETT: Later, Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas took the stage to read from Second Chronicles and the Book of Matthew. Governor 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.
JOHN HAGEE: We confess that we are still a Judeo-Christian nation.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)
BURNETT: Outside, protesters lined the sidewalk, holding signs like Pastor Perry Must Resign. Some of them belonged to an atheist organization that sued unsuccessfully to stop the event. Overhead, a small plane pulled a banner reading, God Keep State, Church Separated. Back inside the arena, that sentiment was amplified by Reverend Barry Lynn, a longtime director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He'd flown down from Washington for the occasion.
BARRY LYNN: I have never seen any event that is created as a religious event but crafted by a politician.
BURNETT: 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 his fealty to Jesus. Linda Faust is a pastor's wife in Cleveland, about an hour from Houston. She served as a usher at Saturday's event.
LINDA FAUST: And I don't know many governors that call for fasting and prayer for a nation. And I applaud Governor Perry for doing that. He didn't have to do that.
BURNETT: 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 with Rick Perry.
JASON COLE: Yeah, I think it would be just extremely beneficial to our nation to hear some of our top leaders, especially if he gets elected as president, to take stands like this and preach, you know, from the White House - ultimately, from the White House.
BURNETT: Later, Jason Cole and his wife, Patty, closed their eyes tightly and held each other in an intimate prayer, unaware of the microphone.
COLE: Take this time, Lord God, and allow it to infiltrate our lives. Not just this Saturday at Reliant Stadium, but father God every day - in the streets, in our home, in our cities, in our counties. Lord God, across our nation light a fire.
BURNETT: More than choosing a candidate for president, this is the hope that most people at The Response seemed to want to take home. John Burnett, NPR News, Houston.