By Alan Bean
A couple of years ago, Rick Perry made headlines by hinting that, if the Obama administration didn’t change its low-down ways, Texans might start thinking about secession. Now the Texas governor is raising eyebrows nationwide by calling America to a day of prayer and fasting he calls “The Response”.
According to the event’s promotional video, a plethora of plagues has driven the nation to its knees: economic collapse, violence, perversion, division, abuse, natural disaster, terrorism, depression, addiction and fear.
As the camera rolls a cadre of multi-ethnic Americans, brows knit in consternation, recite a litany of plaintive questions:
Why is this happening now? . . . Why is this happening to us? . . . To me? . . . To them? . . . To this nation? . . . Who is responsible? . . . What can we do?
Then the multi-ethnic voices get personal. “I just want my children to be happy . . . my parents to stop fighting . . . to get a job when I graduate . . . to be able to pay my bills . . . my daddy to love me.”
“There’s a crisis in America,” an earnest young man explains. “It feels like America’s knees are buckling,” another chimes in. “Maybe that’s the point,” a middle-aged hispanic gentleman says. “We cannot keep going like this . . . someone has to do something; there has to be a response.”
“I know I have to make a response,” an African-American female affirms.
“We must make a response,” a white woman agrees.
“Not so politicians hear us; not so others listen to us . . .”
Then the big message of the piece, delivered by a solemn Latina: “We will pour out our cry to Jesus.”
Are we witnessing a groundswell of simple spiritual longing, or is something more sinister afoot?
The man behind The Response is none other than Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Governors are busy people, far too busy to organize well-orchestrated public events or produce slick promotional videos. For that purpose, Governor Rick called on the American Family Association, an anti-gay organization the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a hate group. If you want more information, check out the AFA’s website. There you will learn that Hitler and his comrades in arms were all homosexuals, that Home Depot has a gay agenda, that liberals are determined to silence conservative voices and (most significantly for our present purpose) that, come the judgment, those who claim Jesus Christ as Savior will be saved while all others will be consigned to the eternal fires of hell.
And this is what concerns people about Rick Perry’s August 6th prayer meeting: non-Christians may attend if they wish, but only Christians are invited.
If you witnessed last month’s royal wedding you know that folks in the UK have little interest in separating church and state. The United States is both the most religiously observant nation in the western world, and the only nation assiduously dedicated to church-state separation.
Religion has no major role in American political life. Presidential candidates conclude every speech with an obligatory “thank you, and may God bless America.” Americans are very interested in the religious beliefs of political candidates and, at the higher echelons of the electoral process, atheists need not apply.
But the details of the American civil religion have always been intentionally fuzzy. Dwight D. Eisenhower captured the spirit of the thing when he said, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
Americans are free to believe whatever they wish, but when they display their religion in the public marketplace, big-tent inclusion is the order of the day. Thomas Jefferson’s intentionally vague reference to “nature and nature’s God” set the standard for the political class. John Kennedy’s Catholicism was deemed acceptable when he made it clear that his religious convictions would not influence his political judgment.
All that appears to be changing, at least in the Lone Star State. Rick Perry is suggesting that America is in the grasp of a spiritual crisis and only Jesus can save us. Moreover, the promotion video prepared for The Response implies that we are blessed when we see ourselves as a Christian nation and when we lose our religious moorings we are flirting with the apocalypse.
The implied message: non-Christians are the problem. The governor has nothing against Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Buddhists–but they are all bound for hell unless they get right with Jesus. Moreover, there is a strong suggestion that Christians who aren’t attracted to this worldview are apostate and will probably end up in eternal perdition with the unbelievers. If you think I’m exaggerating, check out the AFA website–these are the people producing the show.
Don’t get me wrong, Governor Perry is free to to believe as he wishes, but when exclusivist, turn-or-burn religion gets wrapped up with a national call to prayer we’ve got a problem.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center believes “The governor has invited haters to help him put on a day of prayer which seems ultimately aimed at demonizing gays and lesbians.” I doubt we will hear much gay-bashing at the August 6 event in Houston, and if we do, presenters will employ coded references to “perversion” and “anti-family influences” rather than overt verbal assaults on gay rights.
But Potok’s concern is legitimate. The only people who will respond enthusiastically to The Response are conservative evangelical Christians who believe the world is 6,000 years old, oppose civil rights for gay men and lesbians and believe that Jesus and unfettered capitalism are fully compatible.
These positions, though popular in Texas and the South generally, inspire little enthusiasm among the young. American young people are nominally religious, but push them very hard you will discover that most of them know very little about Christianity (or any other religion) and believe that all religions are equally valid. Folks who share Rick Perry’s religious worldview know the world isn’t beating a path to their door; that’s why they’re marketing their stuff so aggressively.
Prominent black and Latino conservatives will likely be well represented on stage, but the audience for The Response will likely be as white as any other Texas Republican gathering. Perry isn’t trying to bring the nation together; he’s pimping the culture war for political gain.
The folks promoting The Response are right about America’s manifold troubles. The nation is deeply in debt, job prospects for recent graduates are bleak, terrorism is an ever-present danger, and the nuclear family ain’t what it was in the 1950s. They are also right to suggest that our predicament is related to Jesus in some way. Jesus taught non-violent peacemaking; but we squander our national substance fighting obscenely expensive wars that increase the threat of terrorism. Jesus came preaching good news to the poor; but we give the wealthy massive tax cuts that further exacerbate the debt crisis. Jesus proclaimed “release to the captives”; but we lock up 2.3 million American citizens–six times the incarceration of any other western democracy.
“Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do what I say?” Jesus asked. We will hear a lot of “Lord, Lord” in Houston; but, as always, the heart of Jesus’ message will be studiously ignored.