Texas governor and increasingly likely Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry helped to create and promote a stadium-sized praise and worship service held this weekend in Texas called "The Response."
The New York Times highlighted some of the controversy surrounding Perry's participation in The Response:
On Saturday in Houston, thousands of people are expected to gather at Reliant Stadium for a Christian-themed prayer service that Mr. Perry created and promoted. Though Mr. Perry has been criticized for spearheading an event that burnishes his conservative Christian credentials as he considers running for president, the prayer rally is only the latest instance — albeit the highest profile one — of the governor of the nation’s second-largest state emphasizing his Christian beliefs and blurring the line between church and state.
Earlier in the week, CNN noted that the event had attracted only 8,000 registrants for a stadium that holds over 70,000, a fact event organizers downplayed:
Organizers of the religious gathering, dubbed "The Response," say only 8,000 people have registered on-line to attend this Saturday's event at Houston's Reliant Stadium, a venue with a seating capacity of 71,000.
Eric Bearse, a "Response" spokesman and former speech-writer for the potential GOP presidential candidate, says attendance numbers are a non-issue.
"Not concerned whatsoever. We think it will be a powerful event whether it is 8,000 or 50,000. The only people concerned about numbers are press," Bearse said.
Perry, who is still considering whether to run for president, is identified as the event's "initiator" on the "Response" web site.
If Perry were simply a private citizen promoting such an event, it would not gather much attention. But he is a governor with supersize influence in his party, with implications in the GOP primary that may dramatically alter the 2012 election. As such the event makes many uncomfortable.
Not surprisingly, those who hold the separation of civil government and religion sacrosanct are uncomfortable with Perry's involvement, highlighting his use of state resources in issuing a gubernatorial proclamation for the event. But joining this group in questioning the event are those who say that the governor is promoting a very specific, conservative evangelical sort of Christianity that excludes other Christians and non-Christians alike. Perry has suggested that he wants all people of faith to pray together, but take a look at his speech and the crowd's reaction:
Watching a speech from a governor that blends strong nationalism with triumphant Christianity is startling. Perry speaks more like a preacher than politician, using language that even our most zealously faithful leaders often refrain from employing.
Scholars seem to agree that Perry has done nothing wrong legally, but is his promotion and appearance at The Response appropriate? Should a governor so actively promote so sectarian an event? Does his participation smack of political opportunity, with the Evangelical vote still up for grabs in the GOP primary? If so, does this cheapen and commoditize prayer and faith?