My Response To ‘The Response’

What I Saw (And Felt) At Perry’s Prayer Fest

I don’t normally jet off to Houston when the mercury is hitting 102 there, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s big event at Reliant Stadium called “The Response.” I also participated in a counter event the evening before and stirred up trouble in other ways.

“The Response” was initiated by the governor as a gigantic prayer rally for fundamentalist Christians. I found it strange from the start because I was unaware that the Texas governor job description included leading people to Jesus. Moreover, why did the governor need to start a prayer event rolling? Has Texas suddenly developed a dearth of preachers who could do that?

The more I learned about the Aug. 6 event, the more troubling it became. Perry said that attendees would see people of all ages, races and Christian denominations. This didn’t sound very inclusive – although people running the event later made clear in response to a letter of mine and other criticism that they didn’t want to bar anybody from attending because, after all, then people could learn about Jesus and presumably be converted. Again, I don’t think this is a gubernatorial function.

Americans United, the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Houston AU chapter and some local activists announced that we would put on a more inclusive and welcoming event at Mount Ararat Baptist Church. Our event, which included Humanists, Unitarians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and others, would share the Constitution, not only one faith tradition. A press conference to explain this event Friday morning drew 14 television cameras. (Here in Washington only sexting scandals draw that kind of attention.)

I had an opportunity to appear on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” that afternoon along with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. Matthews’ producers had created a clip highlighting outrageous statements by rally sponsors, including one pastor who claims that the Statue of Liberty is a “demonic idol.”

Perkins was asked whether he agreed with this, and looking absolutely nonplussed, responded that he didn’t accept everything the other participants had said in the past. He didn’t add any criticism of those fringe ideas though and, frankly, I don’t think he scored too many points in his favor.

Back at the hotel after the alternative event that evening, I was surprised to hear someone call my name. Sitting on a sofa in the lobby was my old nemesis, Pastor Wiley Drake of California. This Religious Right blusterer has been praying for my death for nearly five years, but I didn’t point out the obvious. He introduced me to the new head of the California Christian Coalition, who explained to me that she didn’t need to do fund-raising because God would provide what was needed.

Just minutes later, as I was trying to replace my demagnetized room key, I ran into David Barton at the check-in desk. He seemed to be trying unsuccessfully to get a crib into his family’s room. Apparently, pseudo-historians can’t even work miracles in Texas.

On Saturday morning, it was off to the stadium. From the shuttle I saw bands of protesters outside the arena, along with some members of the notorious Fred Phelps clan, who were in town to proclaim that the organizers of “The Response” were not homophobic enough.

Inside the facility, I did some media interviews. Sandhya Bathija from AU’s Communications Department was working to round up more interviews. As I headed to one, I encountered a muscle-bound fundamentalist weight lifter who wanted to argue with me about the Constitution. This guy belongs to one of those groups that tries to sneak religion into public school assemblies. I was in no mood to argue with him (or get snapped in half), so I kept it short.

A few minutes later, a fellow strolled up to me and asked, “Did anybody force you to be here?” He seemed to think that my complaint (he had seen me on the local news) was that people were there, not that the governor had induced them to come. He was joined by others who were perfectly affable, even though I had a distinct feeling that upon returning to their seats, they would be tweeting that they had just come across a demon in the foyer.

Notwithstanding some good gospel bluegrass from Ricky Skaggs, I couldn’t take it any longer. It wasn’t because of the praying itself; it was what I knew was behind their calls for the nation to improve itself. They meant to stop all reproductive choice, block same-sex marriage, divert tax money to private religious schools and fight a new crusade against Islam. That’s not exactly the spiritual platform I’m on.

I ended my trip by going outside to greet the protesters (who had been placed in four different areas near the main road) and was happy to see the largely favorable response, including waves and honking, from passing vehicles. Of course, there were some ruder responses, but in America it’s fine to protest even protesters.

Not everyone in Reliant Stadium was some hopeless bigot. It’s just that on balance, I enjoyed being with the folks at Mount Ararat Baptist Church and the protestors outside because they represent the true breadth of American thought.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.