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Texas Governor Rick Perry's Bizarre, Fringe Mass Prayer Rally -- What Happened to No Gov Meddling in Religion?

Gov. Rick Perry’s call for a day-long event of prayer and fasting Aug. 6 at a sports stadium in Houston is a dramatic escalation of government meddling in religion.
 
 
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American politicians love to invoke religion, and a generic form of an alleged “one-size-fits-all” piety is so common that scholars have even give it a fancy name: ceremonial deism.

Ceremonial deism is what explains “In God We Trust” on our money, “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and the tendency of presidents and governors to attend interfaith prayer services whenever there’s a natural disaster.

Despite its short-comings – ceremonial deism doesn’t offer much to non-believers, for example, and many devoutly religious people find it sterile and bland – the practice at least recognizes that religious beliefs come in many forms. Thus, God is appealed to but not Jesus. Prayers are “non-sectarian.”

What’s planned for Texas in August is not ceremonial deism. It’s something else entirely. And it’s a big problem.

Gov. Rick Perry’s call for a day-long event of prayer and fasting Aug. 6 at a sports stadium in Houston is a dramatic escalation of government meddling in religion. Called “The Response,” the event is being coordinated by the American Family Association (AFA), an extreme Religious Right group, as well as other far-right religious groups and figures with controversial theological and political ideas. The rally is exclusively Christian in nature; in fact, it reflects a certain type of Christianity – the fringes of fundamentalism.

What brought this about? Perry’s theological allies claim that America is being punished by God for its wicked ways. They see a national day of repentance as the solution.

On The Response’s website, Perry writes, “Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.”

Of course, this could be just a sheer political ploy. Perry has been openly flirting with a presidential run, and this event could be little more than an effort to curry favor with the Religious Right in advance of that.

Regardless, word is spreading quickly among the religio-political right. Potential attendees to The Response are told to bring a Bible and encouraged to fast – although there will be a few food vendors on site for those who can’t or won’t. The groups behind this effort tend to come from the fringes of Christianity that are obsessed with things like prophecy, direct messages from God, faith healing and so on. These charismatic Christians emphasize a highly charged form of worship that stresses emotional outbursts and a theology of judgment. They seem to be convinced that God has it in for America, mainly because we permit legal abortion, tolerate gays and have a secular government.

Many churches in America preach this theology, and Americans are free to attend these houses of worship and hear it whenever they like. But government endorsement of this sectarian message goes too far – and that’s why more and more people are speaking out over Perry’s prayer confab.

Mainline Christian, non-Christian and secularist groups have protested the Perry event – and rightly so. Perry and his supporters don’t try to downplay the proselytizing nature of the event; in fact, they brag about it. They say non-Christians are welcome to attend to hear a message about redemption through Christ.

Perry defended the event, tellingThe New York Times, “It is Christian-centered, yes, but I have invited and welcome people of all faiths to attend.” He also brushed off charges that the AFA is extreme, calling it “a group that promotes faith and strong families, and this event is about bringing Americans together in prayer.”

Eric Bearse, a spokesman for the event who formerly worked as Perry’s communications director, told American Family Radio, which is run by the AFA, that the event would be evangelistic in tone.

“A lot of people want to criticize what we’re doing, as if we’re somehow being exclusive of other faiths,” Bearse said. “But anyone who comes to this solemn assembly, regardless of their faith tradition or background, will feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ in that assembly hall, in that arena. And that’s what we want to convey, that there’s acceptance and that there’s love and that there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.”

Allan E. Parker Jr., one of the event’s organizers, writes on its website, “This is an explicitly Christian event because we are going to be praying to the one true God through His son, Jesus Christ.It would be idolatry of the worst sort for Christians to gather and invite false gods like Allah and Buddha and their false prophets to be with us at that time.Because we have religious liberty in this country, they are free to have events and pray to Buddha and Allah on their own.But this is time of prayer to the One True God through His son, Jesus Christ, who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.”

So, if you’re Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist or even a liberal Christian you are welcome to attend this government-promoted Christian fundamentalist prayer rally – just be prepared to endure hardcore proselytizing designed to persuade you to change your views and leave your “false god” at home.

Perry and his backers ignore one thing: It is absolutely not the job of government to sponsor evangelistic rallies or encourage people to attend them. This type of proselytizing is only appropriate through private, not government-run, channels.

Perry’s partners in this gambit are also problematic. They are best known for angry and divisive rhetoric that often has more to do with politics than salvation. One of the organizers of the event is the International House of Prayer, a controversial congregation based in Grandview, Mo. The church’s founder, Mike Bickle, has been criticized for stressing the need to convert Jews to charismatic forms of Christianity and for a portrayal of Jesus that emphasizes militancy and violence.

Bickle also believes he has been to Heaven – twice. He and his followers are known for embracing a type of “theology of retribution.” They worship an angry deity who punishes his wayward subjects with extreme weather, economic downfalls and terrorism. They approach this god in a spirit of fear and trembling, not love and joy.

And in private venues this is their right. Plenty of churches preach this theology. People attend voluntarily, which is their business only. It’s only when the government elevates this narrow version of Christianity above all other forms of faith and non-faith that we have a church-state problem.

It would also be naïve to overlook the politics of this event. Its most prominent sponsor, the AFA, is well known for slinging extreme anti-gay and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The group, founded by the Rev. Donald Wilmon, got its start in the late 1970s as the National Federation for Decency, determined to clean up salacious TV. (How’s that working out for you, Don?)

Over the years, as cable grew and television became even more risqué, Wildmon branched out. These days, his son Tim oversees a sprawling Religious Right empire (annual budget: $21.4 million) in Tupelo, Miss., hitting on all of the theocrats’ favorite themes: gays are immoral, the public school system is damned, feminists want to destroy families, evolution is a lie, etc.

A rising AFA star is a cranky blogger named Bryan Fischer. In October of 2009, I sat in a crowded hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., listening to Fischer tell a rapt audience at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit that Adolf Hitler invented church-state separation.

That rant was tame compared to some of Fischer’s other views. Since then, Fischer has gone on to assert that a killer whale that killed a trainer at Sea World should be stoned to death (because the Bible says so), opined that Native Americans deserved to lose control of the continent because they were Pagans and sexual deviants, called gay sex a form of “domestic terrorism,” advocated for the reintroduction of blasphemy laws in America, insisted that grizzly bear attacks on humans are a sign that “the land is under a curse” and helpfully pointed out that Muslims have no right to build mosques in this country because the First Amendment protects only Christians.

Most Americans do not accept these extreme views. It’s bad enough that Perry is using his government office to promote a prayer rally. It’s even worse that the one he is promoting excludes the majority of Americans. But worst of all is that he is partnering with the radical fringe of the Religious Right to bring it about.

Yet Perry is not only moving forward, he has invited the nation’s other 49 governors to endorse the fundamentalist event! (As of this writing, Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have said they will attend.)

Here’s the good news: Opponents are speaking out. The Texas Freedom Network, the Houston Clergy Council, the Secular Coalition for America and others have criticized the governor’s role in the rally. Kim Kamen, a Texas-based executive with the American Jewish Committee, cut to the heart of the matter when she toldThe Times, “There are many houses of worship here in Texas, not just Christian churches. As the leader of our state, we hope that he will bear that in mind.”

In mid June, more than 20 members of the clergy from the Houston area issued a joint letter blasting the Perry rally.

“We believe in a healthy boundary between church and state,” it read. “Out of respect for the state, we believe that it should represent all citizens equally and without preference for religious or philosophical tradition. Out of respect for religious communities, we believe that they should foster faithful ways of living without favoring one political party over another. Keeping the church and state separate allows each to thrive and upholds our proud national tradition of empowering citizens to worship freely and vote conscientiously.We are concerned that our governor has crossed the line by organizing a religious event rather than focusing on the people’s business in Austin.”

In addition, the Human Right Campaign, a gay rights organization, slammed Perry for “aligning with groups that, on a daily basis, seek to demonize” gays and lesbians.

There has been talk about a counter event. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, released a video on YouTube knocking Perry’s prayer idea and calling for moderate and progressive religious and secular leaders to publicly oppose it.

Here’s hoping the momentum continues. Perry’s “fundamentalist-Christians-only” rally isn’t just a violation of separation of church and state, it’s also un-American. The government’s first duty is to treat all of its citizens equally, regardless of race, creed, gender and so on. A governor’s sponsorship of a rally that is truly welcoming to only certain types of Christians flies in the face of that standard.

And to all those fundamentalists out there who think someone’s trying to censor them – don’t even go there. No one is saying you can’t sponsor a rally. You can, using your own money and your own resources. It might even surprise you to learn that there are people well suited and especially trained to run these types of evangelistic events. And get this: The title before their name isn’t “governor,” it’s “pastor.”

Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which publishes Church and State magazine.
 
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