Will Rick Perry answer the religious right's prayers?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JUNE 18: Texas governor Rick Perry speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference on June 18, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The 2011 Republican Leadership Conference features keynote addresses from most of the major republican candidates for president as well as numerous republican leaders from across the country. Getty

Texas governor Rick Perry
Getty

On Saturday, Americans will get what for many will be their first taste of the man poised to shake up the race for the Republican presidential nomination: Texas governor Rick Perry. That's when, on a sure-to-be-sweltering day in Houston, the faithful will gather in Reliant Stadium for Perry's seven-hour "Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis." The point of the event, dubbed "The Response," is to help heal "a nation that has not honored God in our successes or humbly called on Him in our struggles."

"With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in moral relativism, we need God's help," Perry says in an introductory video for the event. "That's why I'm calling on Americans to pray and fast - like Jesus did."

Perry is expected to enter the presidential race within weeks of The Response, and with hisduel appeal to the Tea Party and the establishment, he's already seen as one of the top contenders for the nomination. The event will serve as a kind of calling card - and frame Perry in the eyes of many Americans as a mix between a politician and a preacher.

At least when it comes to winning primary votes, that's not a bad place for Perry to be. In Iowa, the first-in-the-nation voting state, 60 percent of caucus-goers in 2008 identified as born-again or evangelical. And in the crucial southern states, Perry's religiosity will serve to boost his natural geographic advantage - and perhaps help him defeat his strongest potential rival, Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith remains a red flag for many religious voters.

For Perry, who came up through the ranks of Texas politics and has now served as governor for more than a decade, this sort of religious outreach is nothing new; he's already seen by many evangelical groups as a fellow warrior in the fight to keep America on God's path. That's a different experience than that of another Texas politician, one to whom Perry is often, and usually inaccurately, compared: George W. Bush.

Though Mr. Bush is now viewed as having been a relatively religious president, his establishment background initially prompted many religious people, particularly in the South, to view him skeptically; he won them over through closed-door outreach and by peppering speeches with religious references that couldn't easily be detected by outsiders.

Perry, as his decision to hold "The Response" vividly illustrates, doesn't bother to code his religious references or keep his alliances with religious groups relatively quiet.

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"When governor and then as president, Bush was not as overt in his connections with conservative religious groups as Gov. Perry has been," said John C. Green of the University of Akron and Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Green described Perry's rhetoric as Texas governor as "more explicitly religious than many people who have run for president or have been president." Perry signed a same-sex marriage ban at the Fort Worth Calvary Christian Academy, surrounded by a who's-who of prominent pastors; in April, he issued a proclamation calling on Texans to pray for rain as part of an effort to end drought-fueled wildfires. It's no surprise that in June, a group of prominent Christian Right leaders - many of whom have grown frustrated at the Republican Party's focus on fiscal over social issues - convened a conference call in which they coalesced around Perry as their preferred presidential candidate.

There was one issue that seemed to put Perry on the opposite side of religious conservatives: His recent statement, in reference to New York's passage of a law legalizing same-sex marriage, that the issue is "their business, and that's fine with me." Yet Perry backpedaled last Thursday, saying on Christian radio that while "it's fine with me that a state is using their sovereign rights to decide an issue," same sex marriage is "obviously...not fine with me." Despite his support for states' rights, Perry said he supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. His office also says he supports a constitutional amendment "to protect innocent life," which presumably means a federal ban on abortion.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

While Perry's full-throated embrace of the religious right may help him win the Republican nomination, it could serve as a distraction in a general election campaign. Perry is already taking significant criticism for "The Response," much of it tied to the outside groups who are sponsoring and affiliated with the prayer rally.

The American Family Association is providing financial backing for the event, reportedly to the tune of an estimated $1.5 million; its spokesperson, Bryan Fischer, has made headlines for a series of controversial statements, including calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants and for gay men and women to "be disqualified from public office."He has also tied homosexuality to Nazism.

Fischer is just one of the controversial figures affiliated with the event: Religious leaders supporting The Response have suggested that Hurricane Katrina was "the curse of God" (John Hagee of Cornerstone Church); described Oprah Winfrey as reflecting the "Harlot Babylon" and setting the stage for the antichrist (Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer); and called for the government to be placed under Christian control (C. Peter Wagner of the New Apostolic Reformation, Lou Angle of TheCall).

The rhetoric the American Family Association and International House of Prayer, which is cosponsoring The Response, prompted the gay rights organization The Human Rights Campaign to accuse Perry of aligning with groups that "seek to demonize" gay and lesbian people; 800 people have signed up to picket the event

"Governor Perry has an almost uniquely close connection to a very, very far out Christian groups that don't even speak for the majority of Christians, much less the majority of Americans," said Barry Lynn of Americans United for Church and State, who is calling for Perry to cancel The Response.

Lynn added that Perry "seems to be very confused."

"He is the governor of Texas - he is not an official preacher or prayer leader," said Lynn. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which unsuccessfully sued President Obama over the National Day of Prayer, sued to keep Perry from participating in the event. That lawsuit was dismissed Thursday.

Eric Bearse, a spokesman for The Response and former Perry aide, dismissed criticisms of the event as "nonsense from the forces of secularism." Asked if the event was for only for Christians, he replied, "It's a Christian-themed event, [but] anyone can come."

The skeletons in Rick Perry's closet

Perry says he envisioned The Response long before he thinking about a presidential run, and that it isn't about politics; he also says that he doesn't endorse the beliefs of everyone linked to the event.

"I'm sure that through my elections in the past that there have been some groups that have endorsed me publicly, that I appreciate their endorsements, but their endorsements of me doesn't mean I endorse what they believe in or what they say," Perry said on July 15, according to the Dallas News. He has also played down his own role in the event in recent days, telling the Houston Chronicle he was unsure what he'll be doing at the event he initiated. "I may be ushering, for all I know," he said.

If Perry does have a reduced role, it could be because his team has realized the perils of introducing the potential candidate through what many are casting as an evangelical religious revival. Perry has invited the nation's governors to join him at The Response; so far, only Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas has said he would come.

Bearse, the spokesman for The Response, said charges that Perry is using the power of his office to push religious beliefs are "inevitable when a public figure steps out in the spirit of their faith." He said the event is "much bigger than any one man, it's about a group of people coming together to seek a spiritual solution to the challenges that face our country."

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Green, the religion and politics expert, says that it's important to remember that American politicians regularly "engage in these types of quasi-religious activities in public." But he said the timing of the event, coming shortly before an expected presidential announcement, "does highlight the connections between Governor Perry and these religious groups."

And if Perry gets through the primaries, Green says, that could come back to haunt him.

"In a general election," said Green, "there certainly would be voters that would be turned off by his ties to evangelicals in general - and to these groups in particular."

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