HOUSTON - Texas Gov. and possible Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry led a crowd of more than 20,000 Christians Saturday, asking God to help a nation he calls “in crisis,” at a Christian-revival event he organized.
In the football stadium where the Houston Texans play, Christians from the state and around the country gathered for an all-day event called “The Response.” It resembled a service at a very large evangelical mega church but without a formal sermon.
“Father, our heart breaks for America, we see discord at home, we see fear in the marketplace, we see anger in the halls of government,” Perry told the crowd in his prayer. “As a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us, and for that, we cry out for your forgiveness.”
Invoking a passage from the Old Testament’s Book of Joel that he said inspired him to organize this event, Perry read: “You call us to repent Lord, and this day is our response.”
Perry, who is expected to announce in the next few weeks whether he will run for the GOP nomination, said nothing about his presidential prospects.
But political strategists say the event, his biggest appearance so far on the national political stage, is likely to impact his candidacy. It could strengthen his ties to evangelicals, a powerful bloc in the Republican Party, but also turn off more secular voters.
In remarks that lasted about 11 minutes, Perry read passages from Ephesians, Isaiah and Joel. He invoked the familiar Christian phrase “blow the trumpet in Zion” to loud applause from the crowd.
“Like all of you, I love this country deeply,” he said at the start of his remarks. “Thank you all for being here. The only thing that you love more is the living Christ.”
Perry's speech and prayer was only a small part of the event, which started at 10 a.m. and ran on for seven hours. Those attending were urged to bring bibles and fast during the ceremony.
“The Response” included various choirs and bands that performed a range from music, from gospel to “America the Beautiful,” while the audience clapped and sang along. In between the music, the Christian leaders and officials who organized “The Response” led the crowd in a series of prayers.
The prayers were immediately translated into Spanish. The audience was diverse, with a sizable number of black and Hispanics, and also included many children and young adults.
“We plead for your wisdom,” said Shirley Dobson, chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force in one of the prayers, telling the attendees they were at times “surrounded by evil” in today’s America.
Perry had originally called for this event earlier this year, before he was considering a presidential run, arguing America suffered from a range of problems from a sluggish economy to “moral relativism.”
The day was officially described as nonpolitical and most of the prayer leaders did not speak of current political issues except for abortion, which they condemned.
At the same time, a conservative group called the American Family Association paid for the stadium’s rental and many of the leaders onstage were familiar figures in the Christian conservative movement, such as Dobson and her husband James, the original founder of the group Focus on the Family and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R.)
Two major Texas evangelical figures who are not as closely aligned with conservatives, Joel Olsteen, who runs a huge church in the Houston, and Dallas’s T.D. Jakes, were not among the prayer leaders. While organizers said members of all faiths were welcome, the event’s tone was explicitly Christian.
Liberal groups and advocates of the separation of church and state criticized Perry for organizing the event. People for the American Way, a Washington-based liberal group, said “The Response” is “powered by “politically active, religious right individuals and groups who are dedicated to bringing a far-right religious view, including degrading views of gays and lesbians and non-Christians, into American politics.”
“The governor of Texas should not be initiating a Christians-only prayer,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Attendees, many of whom were from Texas, said they came because they see an America that is struggling because it has lost touch with God. .
“We’ve lost our heritage,” Lois Tusant, who came from Dallas. “We have turned away from the God who established us.”
Many in the crowd also said Perry’s leadership of this event made it unique.
“I don’t think it would have the same effect without the leadership of an elected official,” said Jorge Hernandez, who lives in McAllen, in the southern part of the state. “That a government official made the call, that inspired me, that was the thing that resonated in my belly.”
As to be expected at an event full of religious conservatives in his home state, people here seem enthusiastic about the potential candidacy of Perry.
“The reason I would vote for him is No. 1, he’s a believer and he’s not for abortion,’ said Paula Giesey, who also came from Dallas.
Perry, a Methodist who attends a non-denominational church in Austin, avoided politics in his appearance on the stage, except to say God’s agenda “is not a political agenda, his agenda is a salvation agenda.” Like other speakers, Perry prayed for President Obama, asking God to “impart your wisdom on him,” and “guard his family.’
And Perry made one nod at his potential candidacy.
“He is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party,” Perry said.