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Cloud of Controversy Hangs Over "Prayerpalooza"

Photo illustration by Todd Wiseman/Jim Ellwanger, Texas Tribune

Gov. Rick Perry is finally getting the national spotlight he’ll need to run for president, but this weekend’s “day of prayer and fasting” rally in Houston may not be the kind of attention he was looking for.

The Response — informally nicknamed “Prayerpalooza” — gets underway Saturday under a cloud of controversy. Its official sponsors and endorsers have been criticized as extremists and bigots. Several groups, including the Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing soldiers' funerals, are promising to protest the event. A legal challenge was mounted and then tossed out. And the one U.S. governor who accepted Perry’s invitation to attend, Sam Brownback of Kansas, is now a definite maybe.

“It’s still on his calendar, but it’s a vacation,” said Brownback spokesman Chet Compton. “Sometimes you do things, and whatever, on vacation. If he attends then we’ll see.”

Organizers of the gathering say all the controversy has done nothing but fuel more interest in The Response, which some 8,000 have registered to attend. Buses are picking up people all over Central Texas to attend, and hundreds of churches and individuals have signed up to simulcast the event in their local communities, organizers say.

The interest from news outlets might be greater than anything Perry has encountered in his nearly 30-year career in Texas politics. By Thursday afternoon, more than 225 media, including representatives from all the major national TV networks and newspapers, had signed up for credentials, officials said.

“A movement is stirring among men and women of faith who are committed to praying for our nation,” said Response spokesman Eric Bearse. “Even the lawsuit filed by atheist opponents has only served to increase our attendance.”

Evangelical conservatives, who will dominate the gathering, will be a major force in the GOP presidential primary, a race Perry is widely expected to enter before Labor Day. The governor has counted on their support, with great success, in past elections. Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said the prayer rally will be popular in a "large segment" of the GOP electorate.

"It's good for firing up the base," Pitney said.

But the controversial statements from organizers and from some of the leaders expected to attend have generated a ton of negative publicity — just as Perry is beginning to get serious about launching a presidential campaign. While Perry has said he wants his potential candidacy to pivot primarily off of the economy and the state's status as a leader in job creation, that's not what the prayer event, and the media there to cover it, will be focused on.

Aides say Perry got the idea for the prayer rally back in December, long before he began seriously mulling (at least publicly) a run for national office. More recently, Perry asked the American Family Association, known for its anti-gay crusades — including a boycott against Home Depot — to sponsor the event. AFA is picking up the tab for The Response, including the rental of Reliant Stadium in Houston, home to the NFL's Houston Texans. Organizers say it’s going to cost a little more than $1 million. 

“It probably sounded like a good idea at the time,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “He should have gotten more mainstream religious leaders involved. He’s got more than a small sampling of kooks.”

One of the endorsers of the event, for example, has gone after Oprah Winfrey. Mike Bickle, founder and director of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, says in a YouTube video that she is a precursor to the “Harlot Babylon” movement that he says will bring on the Antichrist at the end of this world. Winfrey, he says, is “a charming woman but has a spirit of deception, and she is one of the clear pastors, forerunners to the Harlot movement.”

One of AFA's outspoken leaders, Bryan J. Fischer, confirmed in a brief interview with the Texas Tribune on Thursday that he would be attending the event. Fischer has said homosexuals "gave us Adolf Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews." He also once blogged that that social welfare programs made black women want to “rut like rabbits.”

Fischer, a prolific blogger and tweeter who has defended Perry in recent postings, said he would attend The Response only as one of the worshipers praying in the stadium.

“I will be coming. I do not have a role in the event,” Fischer said. "I will be praying along with the thousands of the others that will be there.” He said he agrees with Perry that "the issue on Saturday is the spiritual health and future of this nation. I share with him his concerns on that score and that’s why I will be there to fast and pray."

The event has also come under fire from the Anti-Defamation League, and a multi-faith group of religious leaders in Houston for crossing the line of separation between church and state.

"The issue that’s of concern is that line at which this moves from a religious to a political event and the mixing of politics and religion," said Alan Freedman, rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin. "It is pushing the envelope without a doubt."

Supporters say the nation could use a little prayer at a time of such crushing challenges and defend the exclusive Christian nature of the event. David White, director of the Austin Baptist Association, said worshipers aren't going to Houston to boost Perry's political fortunes.

"This is very specifically Christian — praying in the name of Jesus," White said. "It's not about electing him or perpetuating anybody’s particular party."

In recent days, organizers have announced other participants that are more in the mainstream of the Christian conservative movement, including radio talk show host James Dobson, the founder and former director of the influential Christian conservative group Focus on the Family. On Thursday, organizers also announced the addition of Richard Land, who coordinates ethics issues at the Southern Baptist Convention, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

Perry is listed as the "Initiator of The Response" on the website set up for the event, but it's not clear how much of a role he will play during the proceedings. He is expected to speak and pray and will stay there all day, aides said. But an official program of events, with a roster of speakers and times, won't be released until Saturday morning.

"He will offer some words and some scripture and will lead the assembly in prayer," said Bearse, the Response spokesman. Perry aides have said the governor will be fasting Saturday, just as he has asked other participants to do.

Organizers are bringing in food for the horde of media, however. And for participants who don't want to give up eating as a show of faith for a day, the concession stands at Reliant Stadium will be selling their normal fare, officials said.

Jay Root is a native of Liberty. He never knew any reporters growing up, and he has never taken a journalism class in his life. But somehow he got hooked on the news business. It all started when he walked into the offices of The Daily Texan, his college newspaper, during his last year at the University of Texas in 1987. He couldn't the resist the draw: it was the the biggest collection of misfits ever assembled. After graduating, he took a job at a Houston chemical company and realized it wasn't for him. Soon he was applying for an unpaid internship at the Houston Post in 1990, and it turned into a full-time job that same year. He has been a reporter ever since. He has covered natural disasters, live music and Texas politics — not necessarily in that order. He was Austin bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a dozen years, most of them good. He also covered politics and the Legislature for The Associated Press before joining the staff of the Tribune.
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