HOUSTON—"Pray for our economy!" says Doug Stringer of Turning Point Ministries. "Pray for our country! Pray for our businesses, for jobs!"
His sermon reverberates from the stage into the seats and bleachers of Reliant Stadium. Thousands of Christians—many of the 30,000 who've made it inside—get up and take his advice. They break into small huddles and start praying about the economy. Walking past them, I hear incredibly specific words like "investments" and "9.2 percent unemployment" and "downgrade." I see people tearing up, dabbing their eyes, praying even more. They have to finish quickly, before the next round of songs and prayers. They've already sat through three hours of them; there are four hours left to go.
"The Response" is overwhelming, and that's the point. Just two months ago, Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, became the initiator of an event where Christians would "call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles." Perry was coming off a Day of Prayer to call for rain amid a crippling statewide drought. (It has not been completely successful.) Why not turn the dial up to 11? The American Family Association would foot much of the bill; a governor with simmering presidential buzz would do the promotion.
It came together better than they could have hoped. The cars driving into the Reliant's many parking lots clogged Kirby Drive for miles and backed up some of I-610. They had left their homes after hearing that Standard & Poor's had downgraded the United States' credit rating from AAA to AA+. More bad news, as if they needed it.
"I'm going to take a hit," says Julius Maresh, a 68-year-old engineer from Houston who had expected to retire by now. Instead, he spent the last three weeks watching his 401(k) lose $50,000. He illustrates his expectations for next week by pointing his thumb down and making the noise a crashing plane makes: "Kerrrrrsshhhh."
They're scared when they arrive. Inside the stadium, cooled 30 degrees below the triple-digit temperatures of Houston in August, they are offered solace and bliss. This is a Christian event, but it's nondenominational, and it has a governor's stamp of approval. Attendee after attendee assures me this is historic. They share stories of the smaller churches that have prayed to make this happen. Starr Finn, a Born-Again missionary who sports a pin shaped like two babies' feet—"it's against abortion," she says—describes The Response as an answer to "The Call," a long-running series of nondenominational mega-rallies.
This is a lot like The Call. The promotional material for the next Call rally, in Detroit in November, explains that the city "has become a microcosm of our national crisis—economic collapse, racial tension, the rising tide of the Islamic movement, and the shedding of innocent blood of our children in the streets and of our unborn." But The Response is a little sunnier, says Finn. It's a complement to the 24-hour, 7-days-a-week prayers going on at some of the churches that organized this event.
"They have been praying and fasting for our nation for a decade," she tells me, standing right in front of the stage where Radiant Band is singing about how there's "no God like Jehovah."
"This is the first time a governor, one of the highest-ranking officials in the government, made a stand and said: We need this," says Finn. "It says in 1 Peter that we should submit to governors. As true believers, as Christians, when the governor wants us to be here, we're really required to be here."
I want to double-check that. I do so with the Bible of a man who kept it in a sleeve bearing the legend: "This Book Is Illegal in 57 Countries." The verse in question says, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme." So it thrilled Finn, and it thrilled lots of other people here, that Perry was reintroducing himself as a leader they wouldn't mind submitting to.
"God will send a leader when we need one," says Finn.
Pete Ortega, one of dozens of people who's come up from San Antonio on buses from John Hagee's church, doesn't go this far. There is nothing political about the event, he says. He just wants to praise Perry.
"If this is successful here," he says, "I think other governors, or other politicians, will come out of the closet. Christianity is under attack, and we don't speak out about it."
That's the brilliance of what Perry has done here: These ideas don't contradict each other at all. He doesn't need to talk about politics, or do anything besides be here and understand this event. The religion is the politics. These worshippers understand that if they can bring "the kingdom of God" to Earth, economic problems, even macroeconomic problems, will sort themselves out.
"If I have a supply, and you have a need, I will be able to help you out," says Jim Hylton, the pastor of a new church in Fort Worth. "That's a far better system than one where the government takes what I have in taxes and gives it to you after a lot of middle men have figured out how to. Now, S&P has downgraded our credit rating. That says to me that our system doesn't work. Well, if our system doesn't work, is there another system we can use? One that works?" He pauses to make sure I know the question is rhetorical. "There is."
When Perry hits the stage, it's a perfect union of speaker and audience. He is not announced by name. The giant screens broadcasting these images to the stadium don't even refer to him as "governor." The only perk he's allowed is that he doesn't have a Spanish-language interpreter sharing the loudspeakers with him, a quirk that has made some of the other speakers hard to understand. He reads from the Book of Joel, 2:12-17:
"Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God. Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.
Perry is interrupted by applause; the crowd wants to cheer the reference to Zion.
Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, "Spare your people, O Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?' "
The soon-to-be Republican presidential frontrunner, who is best known among liberal voters for raising the prospect of secession and for presiding over hundreds of executions, has just presented himself as a humble messenger of obvious biblical truth. "Our heart breaks for America," he says. "We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government." It's one day since S&P downgraded America's bond rating, in part because the agency worried that conservative Republicans had proved that they would never agree to a debt-reducing bargain that included tax increases. Perry was pulling off an impressive act of transference.
Few Republican politicians realized the potential of what Perry was doing. Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., appears in person; Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., appears via a video message. "Join me, and pray for job opportunities for those who need them," say Scott's disembodied head. The political risks of endorsing this event are a little clearer when I head to a smoking balcony outside and see that a crowd of around 50 protesters on the ground is enduring the heat, talking to reporters, and waving signs, including: "Todd Willingham Was Innocent," "Pray Away the Hate," and "THINK."
Melissa Puckett, a ConocoPhillips worker from the Houston suburbs, stands next to the railing with her hand held out and her eyes closed. For more than 10 minutes, she incants a prayer for the protesters.
"Please let them hear you, Lord," she says. "If there is one word you can say to them, please shoot it out to them. Let them hear it."
The scene below, all those signs and rainbow flags, just makes her sad. "It's tough right now," she says. "When I'm hurting, I know I can rely on Christ. When they're hurting, they can't do that. They don't believe in Him, but it's not their fault."
Back under the air conditioners, Perry has emerged again to help close out the event. He shakes hands or slaps the backs of all the musicians who'd been supplying the power-chord hymns and all the pastors who'd brought the audience to tears.
"This is a day that people are gonna discuss for years to come," he says. "I sincerely pray that our willingness to stand in the public square, to acknowledge the God who made us, will inspire others to embrace his love."