The freedom to worship -- or to not worship -- is a bedrock American value.
That's why Texas Gov. Rick Perry has every right to organize and participate in a massive evangelical "prayer rally" in Houston next month. But it's also why the nature of this particular prayer rally should give Americans serious pause and prompt us to question Perry's commitment to religious freedom for all.
Gov. Perry, if you haven't heard, is spearheading a Christian prayer event to be held in Houston's Reliant Stadium on August 6. Perry bills the event as "a non-denominational, apolitical Christian prayer meeting." And it's exclusively Christian: an event spokesman said that people of all faiths will be welcome at the event...where they will be urged to "seek out the living Christ."
As this is probably the kickoff event for Perry's run for the presidency, we should all know the backgrounds of the people and organizations that Perry is working with to promote the proselytizing event, known as The Response. His choice of allies belies the claim that it will be "apolitical" or even quasi-tolerant of non-Christians. Co-organizing and largely funding the rally is the American Family Association, a Religious Right group dedicated to infusing right-wing evangelical views into American politics. The AFA's chief spokesman, Bryan Fischer, is one of the most offensive voices in politics today. He has compared gays to Nazis and said gay people should be banned from public office; he has called for an end to Muslim immigration into the United States and a ban on the building of new mosques; he has said that Native American communities deserved past persecution and current poverty because of a refusal to convert to Christianity; he has even compared low-income African Americans to animals. In line with Fischer's views, the AFA dedicates itself to launching boycotts against companies that treat their gay employees well and sponsoring political get-togethers for the far right.
Then there is the International House of Prayer (yes, "IHOP"), the 24-hour-a-day worship powerhouse that has lent several senior staff members to planning The Response. IHOP's affiliated The Call rallies -- politically charged events that gather hundreds of people to pray for anti-gay and anti-choice policies -- also serve as the model for Perry's event. As People For the American Way reported this month, the church's leader, Mike Bickle, has some pretty extreme views: he has warned that Oprah Winfrey is the harbinger of the Antichrist, and that marriage equality would result in the banning of marriage in some parts of the world.
And these are just the main organizers of the event. The Response has turned out to be a powerful draw for the farthest of the far Right, attracting all varieties of extremists, whom Perry and his allies have welcomed with open arms. Displayed prominently on the official "endorsers" page of The Response website are the names of pastors who have called the Statue of Liberty a "demonic idol"; blamed the 9/11 attacks on America's growing acceptance of gays and lesbians; blamed the mysterious bird deaths in Arkansas on the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell; and advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Several participants are prominent advocates of "Seven Mountains" dominionist theology, which is basically the idea that a certain far-right breed of evangelical Christians need to take over all aspects of American society -including government, business and entertainment - to pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ. Fittingly, in a perfect illustration of the increasing acceptance of extremism on the Right, Perry even welcomed the endorsement of John Hagee, the pastor whose anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic statements were so shocking that John McCain had to publicly reject his endorsement in 2008.
Perry, questioned about the ragtag team of extremists he has assembled to help him launch his possible presidential run, has repeatedly claimed that he is not responsible for the views of everyone with whom he associates. He's not -- but he should know who he's going to for advice, and whose profile he's lifting with a national soapbox. Perry says that The Response is meant in part to seek spiritual guidance for the political problems our nation faces. If these are the people he's going to for guidance, and who he's lifting up to help solve the nation's problems, we should all be concerned. What these groups want is for a very small sliver of American Christians with a certain narrow set of beliefs to control American politics - and to restrict everybody else's freedom to worship or not as they choose. Rick Perry, citing his own religious freedom, seems more than happy to lend them a megaphone.