After all the commotion this past week leading up to Rick Perry’s The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis, the event proved to be relatively tame. With more than 30,000 attendees filling nearly half of Reliant Stadium, the speeches and performances tended to stay closer to the theme of prayer, rather than the theme of a nation in crisis.
Outside the stadium along Kirby, about 50 protesters remained gathered most of the day. Many, including a plane flying a protest banner overhead, took on Governor Perry’s hazy distinction between church and state. Others focused his dim view on gay rights. LGBT advocacy group GetEQUAL staged a mock funeral memorializing young people who have committed suicide in the face of anti-gay religious organizations.
Inside, rally organizers attempted to promote an ethos of humility. Luis Cataldo of the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer, who served as the morning’s introductory MC, announced the event would have no merchandise and no promotional advertisements. Onstage, there were no decorations aside from three jumbo screens to broadcast images of speakers, Spanish-language translations and prayers.
It’s not about Rick Perry. It’s about God.
After a fair amount of criticism for leading an event funded by the American Family Association — which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group — Rick Perry recently began to distance himself from the Response rally.
In a serious tone, Perry spoke of lost homes and lost jobs while repeatedly mentioning that he was not interested in politics today — only God.
Appearing with little fanfare an hour and a half into the event, he offered a simple 13-minute scripture reading and prayer. After a string of lively preachers and Coldplay-style Christian rock bands, the Rick Perry portion appeared fairly subdued, even safe. In a serious tone, he spoke of lost homes and lost jobs while repeatedly mentioning that he was not interested in politics today — only God.
“[God’s] agenda is not a political agenda, his agenda is a salvation agenda,” Perry announced. “He’s a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party, or for that matter, he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any man-made institutions.”
Keeping with the Response’s nation-in-crisis theme, Perry’s final prayer painted the American scene as one of discord with “fear in the marketplace” and “angers in the halls of government.” He ended his speech with a fleeting political jab — “Father, pray for our president, that you would impart your wisdom upon him” — before dampening the blow with prayers for the Obama family and prayers for the U.S. troops.
This sense of constant backpeddling, of rerouting political themes towards themes of hope and prayer, plagued many of the speeches throughout the day. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who was not publicly confirmed to speak at The Response until Friday, offered a similarly safe scripture reading and prayer format, ending awkwardly with a plead to God: “America needs you.”
A video speech from Florida Gov. Rick Scott was so brief, it simply seemed to avoid politics altogether.
The Response… just another “call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis”
That’s right. According to its website, The Response is just one of many national calls to prayer in American history. John Adams "declared a national day of humility, fasting and prayer in 1798, attempting to compel citizens to abstain “from their customary worldly occupations.” John Tyler called for a day of fasting after the death of President William Harrison.
Speakers name dropped some serious historical figures — from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War (with whom one speaker likened Perry).
Throughout the day, speakers name dropped some serious historical figures — from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War (with whom one speaker likened Perry).
While he has yet to throw his hat into the ring for 2012, Rick Perry got a lot of comparisons to past presidents. However, it was Christian heavy-hitter James Dobson — founder of the controversial Evangelical organization Focus on the Family — that took cast Perry into a more spiritual light with story from the Second World War. British troops were cornered across the English Channel in France, almost hopelessly in Hitler’s grasp in Dobson's telling.
After the Archbishop of Canterbury arranged a Day of National Prayer, the Nazis mysteriously halted their attacks and the British forces miraculously escaped (sorry, French troops).
Rally volunteers are actually pretty friendly
Clad in their bright red “Response Team” T-shirts, the volunteers maintained a notable presence throughout the day and were happy to share their stories. One woman was recruited by Response organizers who arranged special events to pray for her hometown of nearby Cleveland, Texas. Another nice volunteer explained how happy she was to see so many people getting together peacefully, before pointing me in the direction of the nearest coffee stand so I’d have the energy to interview more volunteers.
Barbara Byerly, perhaps the friendliest of the volunteers, described a missionary trip to the Middle East at the height of the first Gulf War. A former national president of Aglow International — a non-denominational Christian women’s organization — Byerly described Saturday's rally at Reliant as “like a family reunion,” where she could reconnect with friends she’s known from decades of missionary work to over 70 nations.
She too was surprised and pleased with the rally’s turnout, particularly in light of the mass blessing she conducted on stage at 3 p.m.
This is not a time to be a spectator. This is a time to participate.
Participation was a key theme at the rally, although the specifics beyond praying together were rarely given. There were instructions to bow heads, to join hands, and to create prayer groups with neighbors in the audience. This audience participation aspect of the Response seemed to appeal to the younger members of the crowd, many of whom gathered in open areas of the main floor to dance during the music interludes and form their own prayer circles.
Aside from a 20-minute, pro-life song and prayer that included an anti-abortion version of the Pledge of Allegiance, political action was rarely suggested. This portion of the event garnered a good amount audience participation, particularly among the younger crowd members who sang the words of the pledge along with the rockers onstage at least 50 times.