HOUSTON—Organizers of a high-profile, controversial day of prayer set here for Saturday say their all-day event, dubbed “The Response,” will be an apolitical plea for God to help the United States and the world overcome a barrage of recent economic and natural disasters.
But in the eyes of many political observers, Saturday’s event is more akin to a campaign rally than prayer service. That’s because of the presence of one man: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who initiated the call for political and religious leaders nationwide to gather in his state’s largest city for the event.
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Perry, who as recently as the spring was rarely discussed as a presidential candidate, now appears poised to make his run for the White House official any week. And despite the late entry, most polls show he would enter as the race’s second-strongest candidate, behind only ex-Massachusetts Governor and primary front-runner Mitt Romney.
The Response looks like a part of a larger calculated strategy from Perry, who has already indicated he plans to aggressively court social conservatives should he decide to run.
“As an elected leader, I am all too aware of government’s limitations of fixing things that are spiritual in nature,” Perry, a Christian evangelical, said in a video posted on The Response’s website. “That’s where prayer comes in, and we need it more than ever. With the economy in trouble, the community in crisis, people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God’s help.”
It’s the kind of overt religious language that thus far has been absent from the GOP primary. Even ardent social conservatives like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., have stayed away from linking their positions to religion so aggressively even as they talk about issues like gay marriage and abortion.
How the inclusion of religion could play when Romney and another high-profile contender for the nomination, Jon Huntsman—who are both Mormon—remains to be seen. A late June Gallup poll reported 18 percent of Republicans said they would not be willing to vote for a Mormon for president.
Organizers are preparing for 10,000 people to heed Perry’s call and attend the event, held in the city’s football stadium. That’s in addition to what a spokesman for the group said were 200 credentials issued to the media to cover it.
But The Response also courted controversy. Critics have called it an inappropriate overlap of government and religion, and some of the groups involved in it have been accused of being extreme. The controversy has been enough to keep other elected officials away. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback initially committed to attending, but his office said earlier this week the governor was on vacation and might not attend. No other elected officials have indicated they plan to attend.
Even Perry himself might take a low-profile role at the event he helped promote. Event spokesman Eric Bearse said the governor’s role at the event hasn’t been determined yet, although he will definitely attend.
Doug Stringer, who served as The Response’s national mobilizer, called the criticism unfair. Historical figures in U.S. history from Samuel Adams to Abraham Lincoln have made similar pleas for prayer in times of crisis, he said, adding that people of all faiths are welcome to participate in the event.
Stringer emphasized that the prayers are meant to help all elected officials—even the ones they disagree with.
“So it’s not an issue of what we’re for or against,” he told National Journal. “It’s about praying to the Lord for his wisdom and to open our eyes to have the wisdom to deal with problems before us.”