The Response, the prayer gathering that Perry sponsored in Houston last weekend, was a fairly typical evangelical revival. It featured personal testimonies, group prayer and smaller prayer circles, and lots and lots of worship music. But it was very clearly an evangelical revival. There's nothing wrong with a politician speaking and praying at such an event. There's also nothing wrong with a politician calling for a day of prayer and fasting. But a politician, especially a governor who is elected to represent everyone in the large and diverse state of Texas, cannot sponsor an evangelical revival. And if he calls for a day of prayer, it cannot be limited to those "fellow Americans" who "call upon Jesus." To do so is to break a rule in something called the Constitution. ...If he wants to wear the mantle of Evangelical Christianity, he's going to put off a very, very large swath of voters. It might help in the primary. I think it will hurt in the general.
Perry and his defenders do not seem to understand or care about these distinctions. They emphasized repeatedly that the event was not "political," as if critics were concerned that Perry would use the occasion to speak about a candidacy or question federal policies....
Instead, religious liberty advocates including clergy from around Houston objected to Perry's sponsorship of the revival because his position as governor is always political. Although he was introduced at The Response as simply "Rick Perry, Austin, Texas," Perry can never set aside his official role. Again, Perry can pray to God in public. If he feels a need to ask for Christ's forgiveness on behalf of the nation's sins, he can do that at his church. He can attend an evangelical revival every day of the week if he wants to. But he cannot organize an evangelical Christian revival so that "as a nation" we can "call upon Jesus to guide us."
The fact that this has to be spelled out speaks volumes about our inability to discuss religion and the public square. It worsened during the Bush years, when many liberals treated any expression of religiosity by Bush as inappropriate and when conservatives dismissed as irrelevant constitutionality concerns about some aspects of the faith-based initiative.
Now comes Perry, whose remarks on Saturday contained more religiosity than Bush ever uttered publicly, and whose supporters don't even think that church and state should be kept separate. And because of that, they interpret concerns about Perry's use of his office to promote one religion as criticism of his faith itself. You can't have a conversation when the response to "If the governor wants to hold a day of prayer, maybe it should be open to all faiths" is "Why are you uncomfortable letting us pray?"
What do you think?