Texas Gov. Perry under scrutiny as prayer event approaches
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 today 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 Houston's 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.
The Response, as the rally is known, 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.
Perry said this week the idea grew out of a conversation he had last winter with Texas evangelist James Robison and David Lane, who has been organizing religious conservatives in key states.
The governor's remarks came in an interview with the American Family Association's radio network. The association 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 openly promotes a Perry presidential candidacy on the association's website, has drawn criticism for anti-Muslim and anti-gay remarks.
Recent news accounts have highlighted the views of John Hagee of San Antonio, Tex., an official endorser of the Perry event. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain rejected Hagee's endorsement after it became known that Hagee 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; he'll attend as a vacationing private citizen, not as governor, if he goes at all, his office has said.