Americans United for Separation of Church and State in June sent a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, urging him to drop his sponsorship and promotion of a fundamentalist Christian prayer rally.
Perry initiated the Aug. 6 event, dubbed “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis,” and has invited the 49 other governors to endorse it and attend. The day-long Christian rally is scheduled to take place at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Attendees are asked to fast and bring Bibles.
On The Response’s website, Perry writes, “Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.”
In a June 9 letter to Perry, Americans United urged the governor to stop using his public office for the advancement of his personal religious beliefs.
“To be blunt, you have overstepped your constitutional bounds,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn wrote to Perry. “I am a Christian minister and would like to remind you that it is not the job of government officials to call people to pray, recommend that they fast or prod them to take part in other religious activities. That job belongs to me and my fellow clergy. We are capable of doing it without government ‘help’ or interference. We are offended when you attempt to usurp our role.”
The Response’s website includes a statement of faith that reflects fundamentalism. It states several times that the event is designed to promote Christian principles.
Lynn told Perry that he needs to remember that he is the governor of a state whose residents come from many different faiths and some who follow no spiritual path at all.
“Your job as a public servant is to represent all of the people of Texas – even those with whom you personally disagree,” Lynn wrote. “Your promotion of this event sends the message that certain Texans – those who are in sympathy with the religious/political sentiments being expressed by the rally’s sponsors – are better than others. This is a dangerous message for any government official to send.”
Lynn told The New York Times, “I have followed religion and politics closely for 35 years, and I have never seen a governor initiate and lead this kind of Christians-only prayer rally.”
Lynn noted that the event is being organized and promoted by several extreme Religious Right leaders and groups, among them the Mississippi-based American Family Association and Pastor Jim Garlow, a California preacher who has led Religious Right efforts there.
In addition, the controversial International House of Prayer is backing the event. The church, based in Grandview, Mo., was founded by Mark Bickel. Bickel claims to have visited Heaven twice, and his church has been criticized for its emphasis on spiritual warfare, prophecy and triumphalistic end-times theology.
Perry defended the event, telling The Times, “It is Christian-centered, yes, but I have invited and welcome people of all faiths to attend.” He also defended the AFA calling it “a group that promotes faith and strong families, and this event is about bringing Americans together in prayer.”
Eric Bearse, a spokesman for The Response who formerly worked as Perry’s communications director, told American Family Radio, which is run by the AFA, that the rally would be evangelistic in tone.
“A lot of people want to criticize what we’re doing, as if we’re somehow being exclusive of other faiths,” Bearse said. “But anyone who comes to this solemn assembly, regardless of their faith tradition or background, will feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ in that assembly hall, in that arena. And that’s what we want to convey, that there’s acceptance and that there’s love and that there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.”
Many organizations have expressed concerns about Perry’s event. The Secular Coalition for America, the Texas Freedom Network, the Houston Clergy Council and others have criticized the governor’s role in the rally.
Kim Kamen, a Texas-based executive with the American Jewish Committee, told The Times, “There are many houses of worship here in Texas, not just Christian churches. As the leader of our state, we hope that he will bear that in mind.”
In addition, the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, scored Perry for “aligning with groups that, on a daily basis, seek to demonize” gays and lesbians. Both the AFA and the International House of Prayer have engaged in harsh attacks on gays over the years.