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Rick Perry's day of prayer: Troubling messages, good politics

Posted: July 10, 2011 - 7:04pm

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I hew to the traditional American principle that politicians should refrain from promoting one particular set of religious beliefs. James Madison, father of the Constitution, famously endorsed a “total separation of the church from the state,” and that’s good enough for me.

But Rick Perry didn’t get the memo. Officially, he’s just the governor of Texas (having succeeded George W. Bush and inherited Bush’s swagger), but apparently he also aspires to be the preacher-in-chief. Hence his ambitious plans for “a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation,” a national event Aug. 6 that will be dominated — with his official blessing — by fundamentalist Christian leaders who are notorious for their rhetorical attacks on gays, Catholics and other designated nonbelievers.

It’s bad enough that Perry, on the eve of his event (officially called “The Response”), has urged that “as a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus,” given the fact that he was elected to be the governor of all Texans, many of whom are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, agnostics, and atheists. It’s bad enough that the event is billed as “Christians only,” with the proviso that heathens can attend only if they wish to convert. Indeed, the mainstream, non-proselytizing Houston Clergy Council has duly told Perry, in a protest letter, that government “should represent all citizens equally and without preference for religious or philosophical tradition.”

But it’s even worse that Perry is essentially promoting the intolerant Christian ethos of his co-sponsor, the American Family Association, which uses its radio and online outlets to spread the word that, among other things, “homosexuals should be disqualified from public office,” that gays are “in the clasp of Satan,” that all Muslims should be kicked out of the military and the rest deported, and that Christian devotees of yoga should quit because the workouts are inspired by “evil” Buddhism.

This attitude seems a tad more exclusionary than what the Founding Fathers intended. In the Bill of Rights, they wrote that the state shall not establish an official religion at the expense of others — yet Rick Perry is staging an event that, according to its website, will be “praying to the one true God.” Moreover, the website declares, “it would be idolatry of the worst sort” for prayer attendees to acknowledge the “false gods” of other faiths.

Any chance that Perry might catch the spirit of the Founders? Not with friends like his. One key player on the event’s leadership team is Jim Garlow, a megachurch pastor who has compared gays to practitioners of bestiality (gay marriage is no different than “if someone wanted to marry their dog or their horse”), and insisted that anyone supporting gay rights is in cahoots with the “Antichrist.” Another teammate is Lou Engle, who has prayed for Ellen DeGeneres to be converted to heterosexuality, and prayed that all Israeli Jews be converted to Christianity.

But Perry’s star event organizer is surely Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee. This guy is so out there that when he endorsed John McCain for president in 2008, McCain found it politically necessary to throw him under the bus. Hagee has assailed the Catholic Church as “the Great [filtered word].” He has decreed that God sent Adolf Hitler to be a “hunter” of Jews, that God sent Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans to prevent a scheduled “homosexual rally,” and that God loves submissive wives (the “husband has a God-given role as leader of your home”).

Perry is probably sincere when he insists that he is walking the moral high road (“this event is about bringing Americans together in prayer”), and in all likelihood he is sincerely clueless about the constitutional wall he is flagrantly breaching. But there’s one other factor to consider: “The Response” is good politics.

Perry is weighing a Republican presidential bid in 2012. Conservative Christian leaders, including Hagee, are known to be wildly unenthusiastic about the current crop of candidates. Perry has been working them hard, and “The Response” was scheduled to take place one week before the Iowa straw poll, an early test of candidate strength in a party event dominated by Christian conservative voters. What better way to woo those voters than to use your public office to promote an intolerant strain of Christian fundamentalism, at the expense of other denominations and faiths?

Fortunately, our constitutional principles are more timeless than the transient politicians who occasionally prove meddlesome. When I visit the National Constitution Center this summer, I plan to pat James Madison’s bronzed shoulder and say: “Don’t you worry about Rick Perry’s un-American spectacle. This too shall pass.”

• Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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