The View from a Jew at a “Solemn Assembly” Like Rick Perry’s

Right Wing Watch reports that the spokesperson for The Response, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s August prayerfest, admits that the event is intended to convert people to Christianity.

Eric Bearse, the event’s spokesperson, took to American Family Radio to counter critics’ charges that it was an exclusively Christian event, but said that “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.”

People for the American Way president Michael Keegan says Bearse’s statement disproves Perry’s claim that the event will be open to people of all faiths, and that his “behavior is inappropriate for any public official, much less one who is weighing a run for the presidency.”

Of course religious people are free to have political rallies. But they shouldn’t be used to convert people, if they involve elected officials or otherwise have a government imprimatur, and if they are intended to influence legislation or policy, they should merely reflect the legislative or policy perspective of the organizers, not an insistence that we should be governed by their version of the Bible.

I’ve reported on, and experienced, the very type of rally Perry is planning, and I’d give Bearse points for honesty. They are indeed intended to convert new followers to Christ. But they really are about something much, much more: purging America of non-believers, LGBT people, and perceived political enemies, depicted as satanic. I reported on evangelist Lou Engle’s 2008 “solemn assembly” on the National Mall, which, like the Perry event, was modeled on Joel 2:

The Call events, which Engle says are based on the solemn assemblies and fasts of Joel 2, demand repentance, prayer, and fasting in preparation for Christ’s return. “I am an end-time warrior!” attendees were commanded to declare. End-times prophecy mingled with Christian rock music, and the day saw a parade of well-known activist speakers, including [Mike] Huckabee and [Family Research Council President Tony] Perkins, Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney, and Teen Mania founder Ron Luce.

Engle, per his custom, likened his crusade against abortion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. He rocked back and forth, as though davening, preached against Roe v. Wade, and shouted, as the crowd prayed and spoke in tongues, “this is a Passover Day for America. Today, we plead the blood of Jesus on the doorpost!” Purity covenants, requiring abstention from even thinking about sex outside of marriage, were distributed. Participants were urged to consecrate themselves, to be ready for the moment when Jesus “is going to rule over Washington DC and the world.”

Engle’s colleagues from the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City are co-organizers of Perry’s event. At the 2008 event, Engle and his colleague Mike Bickle “insist[ed] that continual prayer is required for this covenantal relationship to be restored in preparation for Jesus’ return.” At the 2008 event on the Mall, Bickle said, “God wants to build a global house of prayer before Jesus returns,” and Engle called it “a global army of prayer in the last days.”

At that rally, I met James Antoine, a 36-year-old Wal-Mart pharmacy employee from Houston, who “told me he spent a week at the Kansas City IHOP, where young people pray around the clock, which he called ‘powerful and life-changing.’” IHOP, he told me, “stirs young people” and “keeps them continuously alert about the end-times. So they can’t be distracted because they’re continuously being bombarded by the preaching of the end-times so it’s continuously on their heart and their minds.” This is how IHOP keeps them primed for war:

This kind of prayer—where young people deprive themselves of the earthly, and are so enmeshed in Bickle’s end-times theology that they can think of nothing else—is the weapon in spiritual warfare against Satan. “The enemy,” added Antoine, “has crept in unaware in our schools and universities, even in the world at large. We have not stood up. Even taking prayer out of schools, taking the Ten Commandments. He wants to remove everything that is godly. But God has called us to rise up and say it has to stop… they’ve already ruled ‘In God We Trust’ off of money. The enemy is doing all these things to bombard us. But we’ve got to do like this, we’ve got to stand back up.”

Engle was supportive of the backers of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda at one of his “The Call” events in Kampala; he later told me that there should be “legal restraints” against homosexuality.

Engle, and his cohorts engaged in spiritual warfare, prophecy, and preparation for when God will make America a place free of the “Antichrist” spirit, are hardly a fringe part of the religious right; they are sought after and glorified by religious right elites. I covered the Women, Weapons of Warfare conference last summer in Henderson, Kentucky, because its founders, Lisa Bourland and Zimbabwean preacher Vicky Mpofu, were recruited by the American Center for Law and Justice to launch an office in Harare and lobby for constitutional provisions that would ensure continued criminalization of homosexuality, outlaw abortion, and declare Zimbabwe a “Christian nation.” The ACLJ, founded by Pat Robertson, is run by religious right legal powerbroker Jay Sekulow and his son Jordan (indeed the elder Sekulow converted from Judaism to Christianity).

That conference, which featured a musician who had trained at IHOP, included a song exhorting attendees to “blow the trumpet in Zion,” and “sound the alarm,” a reference to Joel 2:1 (“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand.”) The subsequent verses refer to darkness, gloom, quaking earth, and consuming fires, as God gathers his army and ultimately shows mercy on those who repent for their sins, and exacts judgment on those who don’t. (You can watch a short video here.)

At the Women, Weapons of Warfare conference, Mpofu seemed to believe that God was trying to send a sign through my presence there (and indeed by the fact that she, Bourland, and I all happened to wear black and white outfits on the same day). In reality, I had interviewed Mpofu by Skype when she was still in Harare, and she had invited me to the Kentucky conference.

Even though she knew I am not a Christian, Mpofu asked me to come forward so she could lay hands on me. I hesitated: I don’t believe what they believe; would I mislead them by letting her do it? On the other hand, it had become part of my reporting, and I was, no doubt, intensely curious about what Mpofu would actually do and say. I stood up, and handed my video camera to the woman next to me, who continued with my filming. Mpofu told me God had a plan for me, and she prayed to “release” that plan, so that “you would so desire him, that you would have such a personal relationship with him, that you know that he loves you.” As everyone around us prayed in tongues, she prayed that I would “become a voice in this nation, a voice for Jesus Christ” and “spread the love of God.”

Vicky Mpofu laying on hands from sarahposner on Vimeo.

So while Rick Perry is out to pander for votes, he’s pandering to people who believe in signs and wonders and spiritual warfare; who care nothing for policy or respecting other people’s faith beliefs; who disdain other people’s reproductive choices and gender identities; and who believe that God is calling them to engage in a bloodless (although apocalyptic) battle with political enemies. If Perry runs for president, it won’t be for the United States of America. It will be for a new Zion whose followers believe God will smite their enemies and declare a new Kingdom on earth, and in America, one that is ruled by their singular version of Jesus Christ.

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