Rick Perry’s Jesus Imperative: A Report from Saturday’s Mega-Rally

By the time Texas Governor Rick Perry took the stage at his scheduled time at The Response on Saturday, the crowd had been softened to receive him. Perry, as scheduled, emerged from behind the prayer and worship band shortly before 11:30, his coiffed hair and toothy grin filling the enormous television screens behind him. The audience, still aglow and groggy, almost, from a frenzied prayer session devoted to individual repentance had been called upon, through the throb of the praise music, to “lay yourselves bare” for Jesus, your “first love,” and to “repent for putting other things before Jesus.”

This was no idle command—in fact “command” and “obedience” were the day’s chief buzzwords for many speakers; as repentance was required on behalf of yourself, your church, and your country for having failed to commit yourself to Jesus, for having permitted abortion and “sexual immorality,” for failing to cleanse yourself of “filthiness,” and to repent for having “touched what is unclean.” As the individual repentance portion of the day reached its climax, just before Perry’s remarks, people lay flat on the floor; others raised their arms in charismatic receipt of God’s word. Others danced. Some spoke in tongues. A woman wearing a fatigue green “M.A.S.H.” t-shirt (that’s Mobile Army Spiritual Hospital) prostrated herself on the floor.

“Like all of you, I love this country this deeply,” intoned the governor who once publicly mused about his state seceding. “Indeed the only thing you love more,” he added, as the audience held its collective breath, praying he wouldn’t say something that fell short of expectations, “is the living Christ.” A collective exhale for him getting it right; the governor was exalted.

The people who gathered at Reliant Stadium are not just Rick Perry’s spiritual army, raised up, as Perry and others imagine it, in the spirit of Joel 2 to sound an alarm and prepare the people for Judgment Day. They are the ground troops the religious right set out four decades ago to create, and duplicate over generations, for the ongoing culture wars. One part of that army is people like Perry himself, supported by religious right political elites who aimed to cultivate candidates, advocates, and political strategists committed to putting God before government.

That a sitting governor would laugh off charges that his “instigation” of an exclusively Christian (and, more specifically, a certain kind of Christian) event is proof of the success of the cultural and spiritual warriors, who believe they are commanded to “take dominion” over government and other spheres of influence. Perry is their man in a high place, in this case an especially courageous one, willing to rebuff charges from the “radical secularists” that he’s crossed the line between church and state. That makes him something much more than just a political or spiritual hero; he is an exemplar.

Jim Garlow, the California pastor who was heavily involved in the Proposition 8 fight in California in 2008, and now heads Newt Gingrich’s nonprofit Renewing American Leadership, insisted, despite the obvious, that the event wasn’t political. When I asked him if The Response would nonetheless serve to mobilize people politically, he replied, “It will cause people to be more biblical, and by being more biblical there is an impact that splashes out on all arenas, including the body politic.”

God’s “agenda is not a political agenda,” said Perry, “but a salvation agenda.” Hallelujah, and onward to Iowa and South Carolina.

“Only The Lord Has All The Answers”

Not everyone at Saturday’s event was convinced Perry is presidential material, but what matters is that The Response has put a glow around him. Rachel Robbins, who had traveled with her family from Fort Worth, told me she didn’t know much about Perry, but that she decided to make the trip because “the government tries to do all these things. It doesn’t have all the answers. Only the Lord does.”

Joyce Thompson, who came to Houston from San Antonio with a friend, echoed a persistent theme to me over breakfast at our hotel: that Christianity is somehow under siege from enemies. Thompson, who described herself as a 66-year-old Tea Partier, tearfully said, “I can’t understand people who want to destroy our country.” When I asked her who those people might be, she replied, “It’s a Muslim thing. It’s Satan against God. It started years ago, and it’s gone on and on.”

Her friend, Virginia Klingeman, interjected that the “agnostics” want to “quiet my tongue”—an observation that led Thompson to point to the abolition of school prayer as another root cause of America’s problems. This, again, is a common religious right talking point. Late in the day, when members of the old guard—James and Shirley Dobson, Don and Lynda Wildmon, and Vonette Bright, the widow of Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright—were honored on the stage, Bright, to the delight of all ages in the audience, called for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms and the restoration of school prayer. (Her late husband was instrumental in organizing Washington for Jesus and America for Jesus rallies in the 1980s, which focused on similar themes to those behind The Response.)

Thompson added, “There are so many deep things we don’t understand. We don’t understand really what put this president in place… it’s been layers of it, but we really don’t know what’s going on.”

Spiritual Warfare, Signs Wonders, and Heretics?

The lineup of speakers at The Response reflect the impact of new charismatic and Pentecostal movements, especially those emphasizing spiritual warfare and round-the-clock prayer and worship, and which have produced another sort of army. That one is not particularly intrigued by the horse race of politics, but rather focused more exclusively on the supremacy of Jesus and preparing for his return.

That caused some controversy for the organizers of Perry’s event, which included speakers and endorsers who follow the New Apostolic Reformation. The NAR’s strident language of spiritual warfare and emphasis on prophecy, signs, and wonders, has drawn scrutiny. But it has the same dominionist aims of the old religious right, even while employing some new rhetoric.

The NAR has also drawn criticism from conservative evangelical “discernment” ministries that consider it heretical—a criticism that Response organizers dismissed. A week before The Response, Marsha West, a conservative writer and editor of the website Email Brigade, wrote a scathing blog post; which she published on the website of Response host the American Family Association, and which was subsequently taken down. West complained that the NAR, which she considers unbiblical, was involved in The Response.

West told me in an email that she was “thoroughly disgusted with Christian Right leaders who have joined forces with a group that is, by definition, a Christian cult. Because of CR leader’s lack of discernment, the NAR is now becoming mainstream.” (According to her website, West also considers Mormonism, the emergent church, new age spirituality, word of faith, homosexuality, and more to be unbiblical.) In the NAR, she particularly identified Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer, who played a big role in The Response. “[T]hese people are what the Bible calls ‘false prophets’… not true Christians,” West wrote. When I asked Garlow about West’s complaint, he shrugged it off, saying that he was not familiar with the term New Apostolic Reformation, even though he knew its founder, Peter Wagner. “I have a lot of confidence in him spiritually,” Garlow said of Wagner.

“There are a lot of theological differences here, but we’re focusing on one issue: Jesus,” Garlow added. “It’s not about whether Perry becomes president, it’s about making Jesus king.”

Jesus = Obedience

Mike Bickle, who runs an organization that seems less interested in the rough and tumble of politics, and more in capturing young people in the thrall of his 24/7 prayer room, spoke at length about what he claims is Christian failure to obey the First Commandment: to know Jesus, to love Jesus, and, most critically, to obey him.

In his sermon at The Response, Bickle complained, “In the humanistic culture, people are talking about love without reference to Jesus Christ.” It is impossible, Bickle insisted, “to love him without pursuing a life of obedience.” Love, he added, “requires that we have allegiance to Jesus,” asserting that we have a “crisis of truth” because “in the name of tolerance, we are redefining love that is not on God’s terms.” Jesus alone, Bickle concluded, “is the standard of truth. He defines morality. He defines life. He defines marriage.” (That is, the way that Bickle does.)

I met up with a woman who used to be a religious right activist until she had an “epiphany” at a Republican National Convention, when she “wondered how serious everyone is about thinking things through.” The RNC was a “two-issue show,” she said (opposition to abortion and gay marriage), and her epiphany led her to “look at scripture differently.”

This former activist said that her erstwhile colleagues—and the people attending The Response—are fed a message from their pulpits that America is a Christian nation and God is angry about sin, namely abortion and homosexuality. “They don’t have friends outside church who think differently,” she said. Still, “I don’t want to vilify or demonize. These people are sincere in the faith tradition I follow. But there needs to be a conversation.”

Back on the floor, Bickle remained onstage while Misty Edwards, a popular IHOP musician and worship leader, told the audience that Jesus would be pleased they came. “Jesus saw you here,” she exclaimed, and he’ll know “you took a stand in Houston!”

Bickle approved: “you chose obedience!”