HOUSTON -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked Christians to turn to God for answers to the nation's troubles as he held court Saturday over a national prayer rally attended by thousands of evangelical conservatives, an important constituency should the Republican seek the GOP presidential nomination.
"Father, our heart breaks for America," Perry told about 30,000 people gathered at Reliant Stadium. "We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government and, as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us."
The Republican was hosting what he has called a national day of prayer before an audience filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer and wept as Christian groups played music on stage.
Perry has said the event is not political but rather aimed at rallying the nation to a Christian unity during difficult times. Still, the event gave him an important platform as he weighs whether to run for president. His words reached thousands of religious conservatives in Texas and nationwide; the event was being shown live in 1,000 churches around the country.
Evangelical conservatives are an important voting group in GOP presidential primaries, especially in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina.
Critics of the event have argued that it inappropriately mixes religion and politics, and protesters picketed outside the arena.
Perry dismissed the criticism, saying that public leaders needed to keep their faith close at hand.
"We pray for our nation's leaders, Lord, for parents, for pastors, for the generals, for governors, that you would inspire them in these difficult times," he said near the end of a 12-minute speech that drifted between prayer and Bible readings. "Father, we pray for our president, that you would impart your wisdom upon him, that you would protect his family."
Perry also prayed for the U.S. troops killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
After he spoke, Perry stood for several minutes huddling on the stage in prayer with a group of pastors.
The event was Perry's idea but was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians.
Attendance had been in doubt when only about 8,000 had registered. But that number was quickly eclipsed shortly after the doors opened, and buses continued throughout the morning to deliver people to the daylong event at the arena that holds 71,500.
Although Perry invited all the nation's governors, members of Congress and the Obama administration, it was not clear who would attend.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, spoke at the arena shortly after Perry. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, addressed the event by recorded video.
Perry, who has said he is considering a presidential run in part out of a religious calling, is expected to announce his plans sometime after Saturday's event. He plans to travel to South Carolina next Saturday, when several of the declared Republican candidates for president will be in Ames, Iowa, for that state's presidential straw poll, a closely watched test of campaign strength in the leadoff caucus state.
Some Republican strategists have said Perry would be better off to identify himself as a fiscal conservative, touting Texas' recent job gains, as he approaches a decision that could shake up the race. Nodding to evangelical voters before entering the race could send the signal he's not the pro-business conservative some activists have said is lacking in the 2012 GOP field.
"He doesn't need to bow to the Christian right because he already has his bona fides there," said Iowa Republican Doug Gross, who was a top backer of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign but has been cool to support him again.
Iowa state Rep. Josh Byrnes, a Republican, called the event "strange" and said Perry ought to make his national debut as an economic conservative. "Up here in Iowa, people have been saying this isn't quite what we're looking for now," Byrnes said.
Nor is it clear the event will help Perry with Christian voters in Iowa, an influential bloc of the state's Republican caucuses.
Pastor Cary Gordon of Sioux City's Cornerstone World Outreach church said his church will likely webcast the event, although Gordon, an influential GOP activist in Iowa, does not plan to support Perry.
Gordon said he objects to Perry's comments, in light of New York's legalization of gay marriage in June, that the state had the right to enact such measures.
"All of our rights come from God," Gordon said. "Rick Perry becomes the poster child for the problem because he is suggesting men grant men rights."