JewsOnFirst Reports on The Response

Our eyewitness report on Texas Governor Rick Perry's fundamentalist Christian revival meeting

Special to, August 11, 2011

Blatant and repeated calls for Jews to accept Jesus punctuated Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Response revival meeting this past weekend. Indeed, last Saturday’s replay of the historic Christian preoccupation with the redemption of the world through Jewish conversion was in many respects a microcosm of what the event was about -- the coming together of different traditions to submit to Jesus, in an attempt to redeem not only the United States, but the world, through Jesus. As event MCs Luis Cataldo told us on numerous occasions – the Response was historic because it drew together people from different denominations and theologies for one purpose: Jesus.

The spirit of the event can be summed up by one participant who told me how happy she was to see so many young people in Houston’s Reliant Stadium: "Maybe it's indoctrination...and I'm sure it is. But it's the right indoctrination."

Joshua's and Perry's sevens
In Chapter 6 of the Book of Joshua, God calls upon Joshua to gather seven priests, supported by a large army, to march around the walls of Jericho with the Ark of the Covenant for seven days. On the seventh day, the priests and their army blew shofars (ram’s horns), knocked down the city's walls, took the city for God, and laid waste to all those inside in the city not devoted to the Lord.

On August 6, 2011, Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas and imminently announcing Republican Presidential nominee, gathered together seven "Honorary Co-Chairs," and an army of 30,000 spiritual warriors (with room to spare in the 70,000-seat venue) for the Lord in a Houston football stadium. For seven hours, those in attendance prayed, fasted (or were at least encouraged to, although food was on sale in the stadium), and called on Jesus to restore the nation to its Godly heritage and ensure its citizens were devoted to the Lord.

It might seem like a stretch to juxtapose Perry's rally with the taking of Jericho in the Book of Joshua, but the two share a similar typology that is based on systematic prayer followed by the claiming of a territory for the Lord. For Perry and his spiritual warriors, that means taking back the nation for Jesus.

Shofars on the Jewish Sabbath
On the day, shofars were blown outside the stadium (despite the prohibition of their use on the Sabbath), while participants wearing t-shirts with slogans such as "In my nation: That's where GOD belongs," "Soldiers for Christ," and "Bible-thumpin', gun-totin' Texan," poured into the stands. The atmosphere was not unlike a worship service at any non-denominational megachurch: rock music played; people jumped up and down at the front of the stage with their hands lifted in the air towards God, fell on their knees and prostrated in tears, spoke in tongues, and lifted up the name of Jesus in the hope of restoring the nation to its rightful place, once again, as a shining city upon a hill and a light unto the nations.

Yet unlike Joshua's priests and prayer warriors who took Jericho immediately after they shouted out to the Lord on the seventh day, at the end of their seventh hour of prayer and fasting, Perry and his prayer-ers, could only ask for revival in the nation, and had to repent for their own sins plus the sins of the nation before it can restored to God.

The rally, initiated by Perry last December, has been mired in controversy ever since he announced it. This was in part due to its association with controversial speakers and groups – the list of endorsers was actually removed from main page of the website for about a week in July, however it reappeared shortly after the press began commenting on its disappearance. Other concerns, of course related to issues of Perry's official endorsement of the event, with its blurring of the lines between church and state.

American Family Association Contributed $1 million
The event itself was funded through private donations and the American Family Association (AFA). The AFA, which runs a network of 200 radio stations – and which has been labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Centre for its anti-gay statements – contributed an estimated $1 million towards the cost of the rally. In addition to its views on gay rights, the AFA has been actively opposed to the construction of any more mosques in the US, as well as suggesting that a law be passed making the Christian Bible the only book that can be used in the swearing in of public officials (regardless of their faith). It seems that freedom of religion is not on the top of their list of things to protect.

Other divisive figures included John Hagee, pastor at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas and founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), (Our report on CUFI's last Washington Summit can be found here. here.) Nationally, Hagee is perhaps most well known for his endorsement of John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election. Although McCain initially accepted the endorsement, after videos surfaced of Hagee's negative views of Catholics and a theodicy that stipulated God's use of Hitler to force Jews to return to Israel in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, McCain quickly renounced Hagee’s endorsement.

Some of the prominent promoters of the rally included Religious Right veterans James Dobson, founder of right-wing organization such as Focus on the Family and The Family Research Council; his wife Shirley Dobson, Chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force; Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Mike Bickle, director of the International House of Prayer which organizes the "Israel Mandate" aimed at Jewish "restoration" to Israel (read: conversion); Cindy Jacobs, founder of Generals International, an organizatio n that is "A key facet of tearing down demonic strongholds [i.e. secular institutions] is mobilizing the body of Christ to work together in unity", and who also claimed the repeal of "Don't ask Don't Tell" caused the mass bird death in Arkansas; and David Barton, an Evangelical activist, commentator and author who is engaged in works of historical revision that places the Christian God at the center of America's history, among a long list of others (for a full list see.) You can also find a video put together of some of the supporters of The Response and their positions here.

Heaven, Help Us
The day was split between four main prayer segments: personal repentance; corporate repentance; the First Commandment; and prayer for revival in America.

Throughout each of these four segments, speakers spoke only briefly (seven minutes each) while worship music and repetitive prayer (this was called "rapid fire prayer" where a microphone was passed down a line of usually four or five people who gave an emotional plea to Jesus for about thirty seconds each) filled in the rest of the seven-hour rally. Dominant themes included: repentance for abortion and an avowal to end it in America; the need to get America's finances in order; the need for leaders to submit to the authority of Jesus if they are to steer the country back on its right path; and the need for a third Great Awakening that would storm all levels of the public sphere. Young people on stage prayed for "the fire of God to consume [the next generation]," for God to use them in the marketplace, the media, and the government, for prayer and Bible study to break out in "junior highs, in the high schools, in the workplaces," and expressed the hope that God would "send fire over America!"

Prayer for Jewish Conversion in Israel and the World
Although devoted to the revival of America as a truly Christian nation, one segment was also devoted to Israel. At first glance, for an event dedicated to the revival of a Christian America, it might seem strange to dedicate a special portion of prayer on the topic of Israel. However for those of us keeping abreast of contemporary Christian Zionism, Israel's inclusion shouldn't warrant much surprise. As we have pointed out in previous reports on CUFI events in (2010 and 2011) Christian support for Israel is intimately related to the redemption of America through a literal interpretation of Genesis 12:3 where God tells Abraham that he will bless those who bless his descendants, and curse any person who curses his descendants. Christian Zionists also relate this to a national blessing and see unfettered support of Israel as essential to the reception of God's blessings in America now. Of course, it is also a means of preparing the way for the future redemption of the world through the return of Jesus.

While John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and hailed by many as America's foremost Christian friend of Israel, spoke at The Response, it was not his speech that was reserved for the topic of Israel. The reason for this, it appears, is that Hagee, who promises his Jewish supporters that he will not attempt to convert Jews, cannot talk about the necessity of converting Jews. Instead, Hagee spent his time comparing Perry and his courage to hold the rally with Abraham Lincoln’s courage during the Civil War, and praying for spiritual wisdom for the country. He even offered up a prayer for Obama, whom he criticizes on all other occasions. This might seem like a noble gesture, but Hagee's prayer, like all the prayers offered at the Response for people who fall outside of the narrow margins of correct faith, was a prayer for Obama not as he is, but for him to become like them. Hagee closed his speech with a nod to the End Times crowd, ending his prayer "In the precious name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior and soon coming king," a reference that caused the audience to erupt in resounding applause and excitement.

Thus the topic of Israel was left to another speaker who is less well known outside of the evangelical community, Don Finto. Finto, former pastor of Belmont Church in Nashville, Tennesse, is now "actively involved with the resurrected community of Jewish believers in Jesus, both in the United States and in Israel" according to his book, God's Promise and the Future of Israel. (More about Finto can be found here.)

In his speech, Finto touched on some of the common talking points among Christian Zionists, including God's promises to bless the whole world through Israel, and the need for Christian repentance in the face of a bloody history of Jewish persecution by the church. However, his prayer soon turned to a theological topic not often broached at Christian Zionists rallies: The necessity of not only Jewish control of "Eretz Israel," but also for Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah as an essential component to the redemption of the world.

He told the audience:

Paul told the Christians, the believers from the nations like us in America, he told them, that they were to live in such a way that would make Israel jealous of their own Messiah, and that we have received mercy because of their disobedience and now we are to exercise mercy to them. He even says that we're to give to them financially because they have blessed us spiritually. He told us Christians that we're never to be arrogant or conceited because [we] have now received Israel's Messiah. The Americans didn't get a Messiah, the Japanese didn't get a Messiah, none of the nations of the world got a Messiah except Israel, he has now become not only the Messiah of Israel, but [also] the redeemer of the whole world. Isaiah said "you who call upon the Lord, give yourselves no rest, give Him no rest, until he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the whole world."

This "mercy" however, comes by way of sharing the Gospel of Jesus to the Jewish people, as a way to help save them. It is not the benevolent "live and let live" kind of mercy that many Jews have come to accept based on the official lines of some Christian Zionist organizations, such as CUFI. Rather, it is a mercy predicated on making Jews jealous through a show of Christian love, in the hope that Jews will see what many Christians consider obvious: that Jesus is the only way. This is the same mercy reserved for all "sinners" -- a topic discussed more below.

Finto continued, highlighting the redemptive significance of the existence of a "greater" Israel and of Jewish conversion, and also an expression of elation that it is we who are living in that time:

Paul told the Christians that when Israel comes to her fullness, there will be a greater revival in the entire world. We today are living in that revival. Nations in the world who have never known Jesus are coming to Jesus. We're living the fulfillment. But Paul talked about the fullness of Israel. Today Israel is not only back in the land, but they're coming to their own Messiah [Jesus]. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in the last decades have come to their Messiah. And so Lord we pray for revival in the world and for Israel to come to their own Messiah.

"Lord, we stand together today as Jew and Gentile, Jewish people have come to their Messiah and Gentiles of America and the nations who acknowledge this Messiah of Israel, unite us, give power to us, strengthen us, give us revelation in the name of Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel, and the redeemer of the world. Amen.

Following Finto were Christian messianic "Rabbi" Marty Waldman of Baruch Hashem Messianic Synagogue in Dallas; Ramiro Peña, senior pastor at Christ the King Baptist Church in Waco, Texas; and Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America. Each spoke on the topic of Israel. They prayed for "[God's] blessing on Texas and this gathering here, bless the United States of America as we Bless Israel, your covenant people,"; sought to "loose the fire of the Holy Spirit over the land of Israel,"; and asked for God to spread over Israel "the healing balm of Gilead" (In Christian terms, this is the Holy Spirit).

This expression of Christian love and prayer for Israel also invoked the need to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, a common refrain among all circles of Christian Zionists, but which can be seen more clearly here as a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity, their return to Israel, and the coming of Jesus. It is one of the more candid moments displayed among Christian Zionists about one aspect of their agenda, and despite organizations constant attempts to dissociate itself from proselytism, it is difficult to divorce this show of anxious desire for Jewish conversion from CUFI's base. They are, after all, very much the same.

A Spirit of Dominion
Certainly, the Response was not specifically a Christian Zionist event or a pro-Israel rally. However, in a way, the preoccupation with Jewish conversion was a microcosm of what the entire event was about. It was about the coming together of different traditions to submit to Jesus in an attempt to redeem not only the United States, but the world, through Jesus.

Although audience members were constantly reminded of the apparent diversity of denominations at The Response, and that this signified the coming Kingdom, there is little doubt that the spirit of the event was a mixture of dominionist theology, of taking the nation and the world for Jesus, and the absolutist fundamentalism that the author Jeff Sharlet describes as "Jesus plus nothing," the ultimate submission to authority . While it is important to scrutinize and question particular beliefs, as a gauge, these are, at times, less useful than considering issues of faith. As the scholar of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith has rightly pointed out, it is not so much a matter of what one "believes" but rather, what one has faith in. The question of faith being the kind of symbolic system one submits themselves to.

And this is where the nearly four decades of cultural work that the Christian Right has been doing is fully realized. The symbolic system that the Christian Right has effectively aligned with "correct faith" is an ultra-conservative political outlook that decries civil liberties for minority groups -- including the freedom of non-Christians (and moderate Christians) from an ever-encroaching Christian Fundamentalism in the political sphere -- neoliberal economic policies that favor the wealthiest Americans, the cutting of welfare and social services, and a redacted American history that places the Christian God at the center of the country's origins -- past, present and future -- all of which has become synonymous with a folksy, "commonsense" understanding of the way things really are and the way they should be.

These things are not lost on voters. A young man from Dallas, pointing at a plane that was flying over the stadium with a banner that called for church/state separation, mentioned to me:

I don’t know what this is they’re flying around, this bull crap, separation of church and state, but we need a unity of church and state, [to] make better decisions, you know? This land, this country, was founded on principles from the Bible, and we’re throwing those away, for what? And now we’re feeling it. We’re feeling the economic downfall, we’re feeling the drought and the horrible storms that’s been coming through here, and the way the world’s been changing a lot over the past decade.

Similarly, a middle-aged, Houston-based woman told me that when she goes to a church there are three things she wants to know: Whether the pastor is pro-gay rights; whether they are pro-immigration; and whether they are in favor of the death penalty. An affirmative answer to either of the first two, or a negative to the third, would result in her leaving that church. When I asked her who she would like to see run in the next election, her response was quick: "I'll vote for the first person to promise to cut entitlements by 90%." For many, these are political issues. However, for evangelicals on the Christian Right, they are matters of faith. And this is one reason why the Response could be billed as "non-political." A common refrain among many conservative Protestants is that they are not conservative for political reasons, but for theological reasons. Where one ends and the other begins is not something that can be easily defined.

So while partisan politics were overtly avoided throughout the day, the political was unmistakably present. During his jeremiad sermon, Perry proclaimed, "our hearts go out" to those who cannot see the light, in the midst of all the darkness (read: non-Christians), but because we know a loving God, we know the greatest darkness comes just before the morning!" Perry later told the audience that Jesus' (the present tense is instructive) "agenda is not political agenda; His agenda is a salvation agenda" "He is a wise, wise God, and He's wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party. Or for that matter, He's wise enough not to be affiliated with any man-made institutions." While Jesus might not be aligned with any political party, the Christian Right has effectively ensured that the Republican Party is unmistakably aligned with Jesus. Jesus might not be able to endorse them; however, they can endorse Jesus, and increasingly, that "salvation agenda" for both individuals and nations, is achieved through a political process aimed at either establishing His Kingdom on earth, or preparing the way so that He can come back and establish it Himself.

Directly following Perry was Dr. Tony Evans, Pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, in Dallas, and the author of books such as The Kingdom Agenda, and Victory in Spiritual Warfare. Evan's speech did some of the political work that Perry was unable to convey himself.

We have a commissioner, the Lord Jesus Christ. He has given us the rule book, the Word of God." The church has lost its holy perspective of the body of Christ, and we have let idols -- an idol is an illegitimate, unauthorized person, place or thing -- to whom God's people look for solutions, hope and help. We have the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords -- we don't need idols. How can America be one nation under God, if the church can't be one church under God?

Evans continued with a scriptural reference from 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, where Paul tells the early church in Corinth to "flee from idols." "When the church allows idols," claimed Evans, "it opens the door to demons. America is in a mess because the church is in a mess."

Amidst the imagery conjured up by Evans' speech, it is difficult to miss the sleight at Obama in his description of idols. The right has long cast Obama as an idol of the left, in part based on his platform of hope and change. Conservative Christians believe the President’s initiatives are misguided because they don't have "spiritual fruits" behind them.

In contrast, Perry clearly made a case for his knowledge and understanding of the need to submit to the Lord in his own professional capacity:

Lord, You are the source of every good thing, You are our only hope. And we stand before You today in awe of Your power, and in gratitude for Your blessings; in humility for our sins.

Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government. And as a nation we have forgotten Who made us, Who protects us, Who blesses us, and for that we cry out for Your forgiveness.

We pray for our nation's leaders, Lord -- for parents, for pastors, for the generals, for governors -- that You would inspire them in these difficult times. Father, we pray for our president, that You would impart Your wisdom upon him, that You would guard his family.

"You call us to repent, Lord, and this day is our response. We give it all to you. For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen!

Perry not only acknowledged Jesus' control over everything but also aligned himself with a submission to His will for the country and the world. This is something that evangelical voters see as essential for an elected official, in order to make sure that the government makes decisions based on divinely inspired principles -- unlike liberals in general who are construed as being guided by "manmade" principles and what is considered the erroneous belief that human principles can solve the nation's problems.

The importance of bringing God directly into the lives of individuals, whether they want it or not, and the failure of human will on its own was clearly expressed by one female attendee from Houston, who explained to me:

Do these people [non-Christians] like the world being torn up the way it is? Read about Somalia, read about the Congo, read about Mexico or the entire world. It's the third world over here in Houston -- six murders in seven days up here. I mean, what is the problem about praying? "The Christian recovery programs and relief programs in the prisons are being kicked out by the atheists and the agnostics -- we can't do that. And yet they have a better recovery rate than anything else, and those are the programs that are being tossed out and those are the ones being forbidden to be in halfway houses and prisons, and it boggles my mind.

The notion that submission to Jesus (and, of course, this particular ultra-conservative version of Jesus) is the only way to save the nation naturally drew criticism due to the exclusion of other faiths, and concerns of freedom of religion. Yet, organizers and participants seemed woefully ignorant of how this could be so.

David Bearse, public relations coordinator for the event, spoke to this issue on the AFA's radio channel prior to the event:

You know, a lot of people want to criticize what we're doing, as if we're somehow being exclusive of other faiths, but 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, um, if people will seek out the living Christ and that's, that's the message we want to spread on August 6th.

It's nice to know that as long as one accepts Jesus, they'll be accepted. However, this is the kind of logic that evangelicals apply to all people and things that they oppose, using the reason of "hate the sin, not the sinner." The problem with this assessment, though, is that in order for the sinner to be truly accepted, they must become the particularly defined model of a true Christian.

Participants expressed similar logic to me. When asking another woman about what she thought of the 150 or so protesters outside, she explained:

They were more than [welcome] to come up here, they were welcome but they don't want to. I don't know, I'm praying for them, too."They won't come, I guess because we didn't mention the name of Allah or Buddha or whatever, and so they're not going to be here, and it's unfortunate.

There are myriad reasons for citizens who fall outside of the mold that this rally was trying to shape to feel that their civil liberties are being infringed upon. However, what is ironic (or, perhaps, effective is the right term) is that the Christian Right has successfully imparted a discourse that inverts the Civil Rights narrative, whereby it is white, conservative Christians who are being maligned and persecuted in their own nation. Cindy Jacobs told us early on in the day, "persecution is the plague of the liberators." Another participant told me: "it's great sport now, and it is sport, to make fun of Christians. I've had it happen to me -- they gloat when they do it; it's the in thing to do. And the media's just falling right in line with that because it is the in thing to do. It's 2011 and it has been [this way] for the last several decades. We're to be condemned. Because we adhere to principles in the Bible, we're condemned for it."

The problem with this disposition is that, as American politics move further and further to the right, taking on a kind of "commonsense" that appeals to many conservatives, it becomes all the more difficult to push back against. People do genuinely feel as though they are being persecuted for their beliefs, thanks to the framing of the issue by the right.

And this is really what Perry's rally was aimed at. It was about uniting a large and seemingly diverse population under the banner of Jesus and nationalism in order to galvanize them in a common cause, even if the specifics of that cause were not spelled out at the rally. The sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out the efficacy of group gatherings just over a hundred years ago in his classic, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Political rallies, mass uprisings, and religious events (and The Response fits all three), generate a special kind of togetherness. The emotional euphoria that they generate carries everyone along and the feelings of unity often remain after the actual moment or event has passed. Although such unity can have the positive effect of bringing people together, which helps one know where they belong, and who their people are, it also has a distinctly negative effect. As soon as an "us" is created, there is the risk of creating a "them." And the more intensely connected a group feels about their people, the less time they have for others.

It would be an understatement to say that the The Response did just this under the shared banner of Jesus and America. The result is such that those opposed to the group or certain core beliefs of the group become construed as not only anti-Christian, but also anti-America. This was vividly expressed by Cataldo towards the end of the rally:

We have crossed our racial and denominational lines today, to meet at the cross of Christ. A multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational gathering, various denominations and political persuasions, to leave those things at the alter to come to lift up one name today, and that is the name of [crowd responds] JESUS….Let us not fall asleep under pressure or sorrow, because our hope is not in man, our hope is in the Lord, amen?

So, if their hope is not in man, but in Jesus, then what is point of Perry's involvement? Perry might be a man, but at this event and through the sermon he gave, he positioned himself as a man of God, a man who makes decisions not based on his own understanding of the world, but on God's will for the world.

Perry '12?
There seems to be little doubt that Perry wants the Republican nomination, and this event will have almost certainly given him the much coveted evangelical vote. This is all the more important in the next election because although Mitt Romney may be the most broadly palatable of the Republican nominees, as a Mormon (a religion considered a cult by many evangelicals) it is possible that many Evangelicals would stay home on election day. Conversely, a Michele Bachmann or Sara Palin campaign might scare away other conservatives. Whatever the case may be, the Religious Right’s strategists are not stupid, and to cast The Response as politicking dressed up in religion would miss the point: for those in attendance they are the same thing, and the fear of another Obama term that many feel absolutely certain would yield even more wrath from the heavens is enough to get many millions out to the polls in 2012.

And there were plenty of people excited about the possibility of a Perry presidency. Everyone I spoke with expressed a hope that Perry would be running, and that he was clearly the "man for the job."

If there is one good thing that has come out of The Response, it is that Perry has made clear who he respects, admires, wants to work with, and what kind of agenda he has. If we think back to the Book of Joshua, and the destruction of the wall around Jericho, we can also recall Perry's typological reenactment of the story. At this point, Perry and his spiritual warriors are still circling the wall of separation between church and state, waiting for God's signal to give a shout and break it down. Those of us not among the army of spiritual warriors anxious to break down that wall would be wise to make sure we are prepared to prop it up.

TOPIC: Church-State Separation