Guest author Michael Tracey covered Rick Perry’s Christian-only Evangelical prayerfest The Response on Saturday. Here’s his report.
So I covered Rick Perry’s Strictly Apolitical Prayerfest Freakout on Saturday for Mother Jones magazine, unembedded. Luckily I emerged unscathed, although the media people at Reliant Stadium in Houston actually said we were not permitted to enter the festival grounds, and should instead stay confined to a row near the back for print journalists — suggesting that danger may lie ahead. But I ventured out anyway, to be among the many Evangelicals who so revered Perry that as he recited scripture, they lifted their hands to the sky in worship. Just as they would for any other preacher.
A number of indicators suggested that The Response won Perry an important political victory if he chooses to run for president, which many assume at this point is virtually assured. Several people I spoke with rejected the notion that any negative-PR arising from his decision to associate with extreme Christianists would mar Perry’s fortunes in a hypothetical campaign. “I think it’ll help him in the primary, and by the time the general election rolls around, this’ll all be ancient history,” said Bob Price of TexasGOPVote, an advocacy group.
Perry’s message resonated with sacred potency. A gaggle of congregants from Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA, mulled about Reliant concourse level — forty people had made the five-hour, early morning bus trip to Houston. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said Brother Dennis Terry, the presiding pastor. “If there was ever a day and a time when the church needed to get together as one, it’s now.”
I asked how America might be lifted out of its sinful malaise. “Just last Sunday I preached out of Joel 2,” he said, “calling our people to repentance. Repentance begins in the house of God.”
As it happens, Joel 2 – a minor apocalyptic book of the Old Testament – appeared to be Gov. Perry’s primary source of scriptural inspiration for convening The Response. In his opening remarks, he read the very same passage cited by Brother Dennis.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion, Declare a holy fast, a sacred assembly,” Joel reads. “Let the priests, who
minister before the LORD, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, ‘Spare your people,
Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’
Needless to say, Brother Dennis was very taken with the governor’s piety. “I believe he’s a man of faith. I believe that he will call this nation to repentance and to faith, and I will support him,” Dennis said. “To me, this here confirmed everything I was already feeling in my heart.”
Will he encourage his congregants to vote accordingly in the Republican primary, should Perry decide to enter it? Dennis beckoned the flock to encircle me. They promptly did so. “I will encourage them,” Dennis said, the tenor of his voice escalating. “We’re gonna stand with God’s man!”
“Amen!” the flock called out. “Yessir!”
Then Brother Dennis looked me straight in the eyes. “I truly believe that Gov. Rick Perry can be God’s man for this hour, for our nation,” he said, concluding our conversation and leading his followers off toward the concession stands.
You’ll notice that the preceding anecdote is exactly the type of thing that Perry should want to happen were he running for president, which he almost certainly is. Enthrall the preachers, send them home to organize, but do it under the auspice of attaining salvation — not politics. Brilliant!
The lines at concession stands, by the way, were perpetually clogged as people waited for hotdogs, nachos, and smoothies. Perry, invoking Joel, had called for an optional day of fasting – which gave this sight a tinge of irony. I asked whether beer was on sale. It wasn’t.
At some point I ran into Bryan Fischer, the flagrantly anti-gay radiohost and media personality from the American Family Association, which entirely underwrote the event. He defended his past assertion that Hitler was indeed gay, and that the Defense of Marriage Act is actually a boon to states’ rights. He also reiterated support for a federal anti-gay marriage amendment. No surprises there, but what I found most important was his belief that Rick Perry, soon to be the Republican presidential front-runner for president, is set to move the country in a direction where gay rights will no longer be tolerated, at least in terms of public policy. I’ll actually be on his show tomorrow! Weird, huh?
I moved on from Fischer, feeling morally conflicted about my conclusion that he seemed like a moderately charming person. Players from the Houston Texans, the typical occupants of Reliant Stadium, passed me in the hallways. No matter how many times I see football players up close, I always gawk at their massive size. Most had no idea about what was happening in the stadium, though one told me this year’s defense was looking “awesome.” Later, a bottled-water vendor said she’d been plucked by management from her normal assignment at training camp to work The Response. “I’d rather be at training camp,” she told me, sighing.
Michael Tracey is a freelance journalist based in New York. He has also written for Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, The Nation, The Awl, and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.
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