Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the 28th annual National Assn. of Latino… (Darren Abate / Associated…)
Reporting from Houston — Beneath the dome of an air-conditioned football stadium and a cloud of controversy, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will lead thousands of Christian fundamentalists in seven hours of prayer and fasting Saturday on behalf of a "nation in crisis."
"This isn't about me," Perry said. "It's about Jesus."
It's also different from anything a prospective presidential candidate has done, at least on such a grand scale, in recent elections.
A bold ploy by a public official unafraid to mix religion and governing, Perry's call for the faithful to fill 71,000-seat Reliant Stadium has drawn the attention of evangelical voters, a potent force in Republican presidential politics, just days ahead of his expected entry into the 2012 race.
Perry has used the rally — which he says will be apolitical — to showcase his religious beliefs through an aggressive campaign of interviews on Christian media outlets. At the same time, traditional news organizations have zeroed in on the sometimes extreme positions of rally sponsors and endorsers, negative publicity that also plays to Perry's advantage.
The mainstream news "media won't like it, because it isn't secular," said Republican strategist Mike Murphy. "And the movement Christian world will like it because the media won't."
The Response, as the rally is known, is being coordinated with events in all 50 states and streamed live online. It comes at the start of an important week in the presidential race in Iowa, with a televised debate Thursday and a straw vote next weekend that Perry is skipping. In 2008, evangelical Christians cast more than half the ballots in the state's presidential caucuses.
Rally spokesman Eric Bearse, a former Perry aide, said the governor had never arranged an event like this before, though as recently as this spring he issued an official proclamation calling for three days of prayer to end the state's prolonged drought.
Perry said this week that the idea grew out of a conversation he had last winter with James Robison, a Texas evangelist, and David Lane, who has been organizing religious conservatives in key states ahead of the 2012 election.
The governor's remarks came in an interview with the American Family Assn.'s radio network. The association, founded by Donald Wildmon, is picking up the $500,000-plus tab for the rally, which is free to participants.
The Tupelo, Miss.-based association portrays homosexuality as a moral threat to the country. One of its top officials, Bryan Fischer, who promotes a Perry presidential candidacy on the association's website, has drawn criticism for a variety of anti-Muslim and anti-gay remarks, including claims that Hitler was gay and that the Nazi Party was a creation of "homosexual thugs."
Recent news accounts have highlighted the views of John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas, an official endorser of the Perry event. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain rejected Hagee's endorsement after it became known that the pastor had suggested the Holocaust was a plan by God to prompt Jews to reclaim the Promised Land.
Perry has attempted to distance himself from the more outlandish statements made by some pastors who plan to attend his rally, including anti-gay and anti-Catholic slurs.
"I appreciate anyone who's going to endorse me, whether it's on the Response or whether it's on a potential run for the presidency," he told Texas reporters last month. "Just because you endorse me doesn't mean I endorse everything that you say or do."
The governor's detractors point out that only one governor from another state might attend, though Perry personally invited all 49. Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas, the lone exception, has backpedaled as outrage over the event has grown; if he attends at all, it will be as a vacationing private citizen, not as governor, his office has said.
Late last month, a federal judge in Houston rejected a lawsuit by an atheist group which had sought to prevent Perry from taking part, claiming it violated the separation of church and state. Civil liberties organizations are protesting both the exclusionary nature of the Christians-only program and the sponsors it describes as "intolerant religious extremists."
Perry plans to fast throughout the daylong event; while his exact role has been kept somewhat secret, he is expected to speak. Turnout for the rally also remains in question, though tens of thousands are likely to attend.
"It may just be me and a couple ushers in Reliant Stadium," Perry said the other day. "But that's OK. We're going to pray for the president of the United States, to have God's wisdom poured out over him, to have his eyes opened."