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The 2012 presidential campaign begins in earnest this Saturday, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry hosts “The Response,” a daylong prayer rally at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.Thousands of Christians are expected to attend the rally, where they will join Perry to call on God to guide the nation through its current “moral and financial” crisis.
“As an elected leader, I am all too aware of government’s limitations when it comes to fixin’ things that are spiritual in nature,” Perry says in a video invitation on The Response website. “That’s where prayer comes in, and we need it more than ever. With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God’s help. That’s why I am calling on Americans to pray and fast, like Jesus did.”
The political underpinnings of The Response are significant. Assuming Perry runs for president — advisors say he is “poised to enter” the race in mid-to-late August — The Response will serve as a de facto campaign launch that will position Perry as the leading candidate among conservative evangelical voters.
Evangelical Christians now represent nearly half of Republican primary voters. In Iowa and South Carolina — two key early voting states — evangelicals make up 60% of those states’ GOP electorates.
With The Response, Perry aims to demonstrate his ability to energize this key voting bloc and activate religious grassroots networks. Should the Texas Governor decide to throw his hat in the ring, the event will signal to 2012 Republican candidates that Perry intends to lock up evangelical support quickly.
Here’s what you need to know about Perry’s prayer rally:
WHAT IS THE RESPONSE?
According to the event website,”The Response,” is a national day of prayer to ask God’s forgiveness and guidance in addressing the country’s “unprecedented struggles” — including “financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters.”
“We believe that America is in a state of crisis. Not just politically, financially or morally, but because we are a nation that has not honored God in our successes or humbly called on Him in our struggles,” Perry says in a message on the website. “According to the Bible, the answer to a nation in such crisis is to gather in humility and repentance and ask God to intervene.”
Although it is not Perry’s first call to prayer — in April he declared three days of prayer and fasting to end the state’s drought — The Response is the first time the Texan has taken his prayers national. In a June “proclamation,” Perry designated Aug. 6 a “Day of Prayer and Fasting for Our Nation,” and invited all 49 of his fellow U.S. governors to join him in Houston for the rally.
“I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like that described in the Book of Joel,” Perry wrote in a letter to governors. “I also request that you join me in issuing a proclamation…calling upon your constituents to join us in prayer for our nation on August 6.”
So far, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is the only other governor attending the event, although Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) will send in a “short video” to be played at the rally. Others — including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) — have issued prayer proclamations for Aug. 6. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has signed a letter of support for the event.
Despite the political overtones and timing of the event, Perry’s advisers insist that the idea for The Response predated any thoughts of a presidential campaign.
“It was something that was in his heart,” Eric Bearse, the official spokesman for The Response and a former speechwriter for Perry, told Business Insider. “He felt that the nation is at a crossroads and that it is important to seek spiritual guidance.”
“There is a palpable sense that America is a country with great people but one that needs direction,” Bearse added. “It’s important to have a humbling approach to ask the Lord for his guidance.”
WHO IS GOING TO THE RESPONSE?
Between 30,000 and 35,000 people are expected to attend Saturday’s event, although those numbers may be revised higher this week, a spokesman for Reliant Stadium told BI yesterday. The stadium, home to the NFL’s Houston Texans, can hold up to 86,000 people, depending on how it is configured.
According to event organisers, the majority of attendees are coming from Houston and other parts of Texas. Two Houston megachurches — the nondenominational Lakewood Church and Second Baptist Church (the largest and fifth-largest congregations in the U.S., respectively) — are expected to deliver particularly strong showings at The Response.
organisers said they also anticipate that a number of individuals and church groups from outside of Texas will attend the rally, although final numbers will not be available until after the event.
For those who can’t make it to Houston or choose to participate in their own house of worship, several religious organisations have signed on to host their own “mini-Response” events, Bearse said.
The John Wesley United Methodist Church in Victoria, Texas, for example, will host a local prayer service on Saturday modelled after The Response. In Virginia, a state “Response prayer team” has asked Christian leaders across the state to attend a “Response” event in Richmond or host their own prayer gatherings.
WHO IS PAYING FOR THE RESPONSE?
To fund Saturday’s free prayer rally, Perry has partnered with the Missouri-based American Family Association, a conservative Christian nonprofit that is picking up the estimated $1 million tab for The Response.
The AFA is perhaps best known for its opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and homosexuality — positions that have been a major sticking point with critics of The Response. The AFA has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law centre for its anti-gay and anti-Muslim views.
The AFA’s contributions to The Response are being managed by David Lane, a Christian political activist and the Finance Chair for Perry’s prayer rally.
Over the past several years, Lane has emerged as a secret weapon of the Religious Right. His “Pastor Policy Briefings” — largely funded by the AFA — have been attended by nearly 10,000 Christian leaders and been influential in key battleground voting contests.
Conservative historian Doug Wead describes Lane as “the mysterious, behind-the-scenes, evangelical kingmaker who stormed into Iowa in 2008 and turned the whole thing from Romney to Huckabee.” In short, Lane is the guy to have in your corner if you want to mobilize the religious right.
Lane has been a longtime Perry supporter — his Texas Restoration Project spent more than $1 million on pastor briefing meetings to support of Perry’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign. The California activist was also the driving force behind a conference call last month that rallied key evangelical leaders behind a potential Perry 2012 campaign.
WHO IS IS BEHIND THE RESPONSE?
In addition to Lane and the AFA, several other evangelical heavyweights are listed as “honorary co-chairs” for The Response. The illustrious roster, displayed prominently on the event’s website, includes James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Richard Land, a prominent member of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Well-known minority evangelical leaders Tony Evans, a Dallas pastor, and Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the Hispanic Evangelical Association, are also listed as co-chairs.
The organisers for The Response are less well-known, but equally significant. The team responsible for mobilizing churches and ministries for the event is made up of leaders of a new — but rapidly expanding — movement of evangelicals, known as the New Apostolic Reformation. [For more on the movement, check out this slideshow.]
This Christian fringe movement is quickly gaining acceptance among mainstream fundamentalist evangelicals. Their explosive growth that can be attributed to the proliferation of New Apostolic “prayer networks.” It is through these national networks — which operate outside of any specific church or denomination — that organisers are mobilizing followers for The Response.
Leading the charge is Doug Stringer, who is responsible for coordinating national church mobilization for The Response. Stringer is an advisor to the Texas Apostolic Prayer Network, a statewide Apostolic Prayer network that is part of the 50-state Heartland Apostolic Network.
Stringer and his fellow Response organisers — including prominent New Apostles Jim Garlow and Alice Patterson — have tapped into this national web of interlocking networks to mobilize followers for Perry’s prayer rally. As we have previously written, these networks operate more like political campaigns than churches, using email, cell phones, and social media to connect a widespread spiritual community that includes churches and ministries across the country.
The cross-section of mainstream evangelicals and more conservative fundamentalists involved in The Response was intentional, Bearse notes. “It is all about the diversity of the body of Christ.”
WHAT ARE THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS?
The Response builds Perry’s clout at both the grassroots and the upper echelons of American evangelicalism — a rare feat that makes him a formidable opponent for any 2012 Republican candidate looking to capture social conservative votes.
The rally, with it’s emphasis on national redemption and salvation, hits all the high notes required of presidential candidates courting evangelical voters. What sets Perry’s message apart is its scale — next to a Texas stadium prayer revival, the Aug. 13 Ames Straw Poll will look minor league.
The Response has galvanised the potent New Apostolic Prayer Networks — the same networks that launched former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to political stardom in 2008 (and the ones that Palin would likely rely on to kickstart her presidential campaign should she choose to run).
But Perry, unlike Palin, has coupled that grassroots effort with support from the old vanguard of the Religious Right — which still holds the keys to the fundraising kingdom. Combine that with the backing of minority evangelical leaders, and The Response appears to have, at least temporarily, unified the conservative evangelical base.