The Real Story Behind Rick Perry’s Secret Meetings with Pastors

At Ethics Daily, a site founded by the moderate Baptist Center for Ethics, contributing editor Brian Kaylor last month broke what was probably the most under-noticed religion story of the campaign season. He reported that a group of about 80 pastors and other conservative Christian leaders met in Texas, under the direction of televangelist James Robison, to continue to plot what Kaylor describes as a “behind-the-scenes strategy” to defeat Barack Obama in 2012.

In the second part of his two-part article, Kaylor reported:

A group of pastors and other conservative Christian leaders from across the country continue to plan their behind-the-scenes strategy to defeat President Obama in 2012.

However, the group does not seem likely to support a Republican during the primary race or even reach a consensus as to which candidate should receive the Republican nomination.

The group is connected to Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s plan for a large prayer rally in August.

Kaylor emailed me yesterday, after reading my post on how Perry’s effort was reminiscent of Robison’s role in mobilizing conservative Christians in support of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000. Kaylor wrote, “You were correct to connect the news about Perry’s phone call with Robison’s effort in 1980. In fact, the connection is much stronger.”

Kaylor reported in June that although Robison denied that his group was supporting a particular candidate—in fact, the group was divided over who to support, as was the religious right leadership in 2008—the televangelist appears to be a prime motivator of Perry’s prayer rally scheduled for August 6. His group did not just participate in a single phone call, as Amy Sullivan reported at TIME, but gathered for a two-day meeting June 21-22, which was a follow-up to a meeting Robison convened last September.

The same day that Robison wrote in a blog post that “Christians must respond to the invitation issued by the prophet Joel to ‘return to God’,” Perry announced his rally, saying, “Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response.” (I’ve written here about the meaning of a Joel 2 “solemn assembly.”)

Robison had been pushing for a governor to take up his prayer call, arguing that “we need our governors, our state leaders, our national leaders, really come together in real serious prayer because we need answers from above.” And even if Perry is not yet the anointed one for the GOP nomination, he appears to have been the one anointed by his fellow Republican governors to steer the Republican Governors’ Association in an unprecedented theocratic direction. Robison revealed to Kaylor that Ohio Governor John Kasich told him Perry should be the one to do it because “the governor that had been in leadership long enough that [he] could call a prayer meeting.”

Robison insisted to Kaylor that he’s not endorsing Perry. But, as Kaylor notes, “his preference was likely obvious.” Still, as Kaylor also observes, the group is hardly unanimous about who to endorse and, regardless of its differences now, would likely rally around whoever the nominee turns out to be in their quest to defeat Obama.

It’s worth remembering, though, that some in the religious right leadership regretted not rallying around a good Christian candidate (Mike Huckabee) earlier in the 2008 process that ultimately produced John McCain as the candidate about which the religious right was decidedly lukewarm. That doesn’t mean they’ll all agree about who the right candidate is this time.

Robison, who was a key figure in the early days of the religious right, is serving as a bridge between the era of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the present. The founder of Ethics Daily, Robert Parham, once wrote that Falwell “speaks with the certitude of a no-nothing buffoon” about global warming, adding, “his flat-earth theology is wrong. His misuse of the Bible for reactionary politics is wrong. His dichotomy between evangelism and environmentalism is wrong. His demonization of thoughtful pro-environment Christians is wrong.” Robison’s agenda for the 2012 election draws from that same well of contempt for a contemporary secular democracy.

Kaylor points to Robison’s June 3 blog post, which reads like a theo-economic merger of a religious right and Tea Party wishlist (a merger Robison endorsed last year while helping Ralph Reed promote the launch of his Faith and Freedom Coalition). In a nutshell: America should be ruled by God, not government, with no abortion, gay marriage, or jurisprudence Robison disagrees with; the market should be kept “free, healthy, and under the influence of people who understand that importance of personal responsibility,” as “out of control spending” and “intrusive regulation” are “as wrong and immoral and stealing;” and the the tax code should be revamped “so we can rejoice together because it would stimulate economic growth.”

But there’s more. There’s good, and there’s evil, and in laying out a parade of evils, Robison lists “radical Islam,” “terrorism” and “extreme environmental activism” all in the same breath.

The players in Robison’s meetings reflect this agenda. They include Jim Garlow, the California pastor instrumental in the California Proposition 8 fight who now runs Newt Gingrich’s Renewing American Leadership, and Harry Jackson, who relentlessly opposed D.C.’s gay marriage law; religious right historian David Barton; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; Rod Parsley, who, like John Hagee, is apparently making a comeback after being rejected by McCain in 2008; Jerry Boykin, the retired general who was found to have violated Pentagon rules in 2004 for giving a speech in uniform in which he said God placed George W. Bush in office and that a “spiritual army” was being recruited to defeat Islam; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council, who has been touted as a non-partisan religious leader sought out by Democrats, including Obama, but has coalesced with the religious right in opposing health care reform, reproductive rights, and LGBT rights by deploying the rhetoric of spiritual warfare.

Robison maintains that depending on the government “is idolotry. We must control it, or it will control us. Stop the madness! Hitler believed that Germany needed a government over the people, not of the people. God deliver us from this kind of insanity.”

I suspect a lot of observers of Perry’s theocratically-driven rise will use that last line many times, but with a very different intended meaning.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email