By Steven Philp
Whether you are Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, if you are passing through the Lone Star State on August 6 you might encounter an unexpected stranger: Jesus. That is if you believe the testimony given by Eric Bearse, spokesperson for The Response; according to a radio interview posted on Right Wing Watch, Bearse has promised that the event—an ecumenical prayer meeting scheduled at the Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX—will allow people “regardless of their faith tradition or background… [to] feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ.”
Bearse’s comments—broadcast on American Family Radio—came after the event received heavy criticism for alienating non-Christian Texans; after all, The Response is being co-hosted by the office of Texas Governor Rick Perry. His administration published a press release on June 6advertising the event. In the statement, he issues an official proclamation for a “Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation to seek God’s guidance and wisdom in addressing the challenges that face our communities, states and nation” and encourages his fellow governors to give similar legislation in their states. The official website for the governor continues to carry the statement, which implies that his administration is strongly biased toward the Christian tradition despite the diversity of his constituents. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, a 2000 survey estimates that both the Jewish and Muslim populations of Texas fall over 100,000 individuals respectively.
According to his press release, Governor Perry’s participation in the event is motivated by a vision of “unity and righteousness for our states, nation, and mankind.” He states, “Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like that described in the book of Joel.” Yet he is decidedly non-specific concerning what is degrading American culture. If anything, the language is uncomfortably similar to a number of extreme conservative voices; a quick search of the Internet will reveal that the term “debasement of our culture” or “debasement of American culture” is used in reference to the LGBTQ community, immigrants and us: the Jewish community.
The association between Governor Perry and the event is complicated by its co-host, the ultraconservative American Family Association. This organization has lent its voice to a number of national issues, including freedom of religion, same-sex marriage and abortion; their advocacy trends to the far right, and it has become a leader in the fight against religious pluralism, marriage equality, and the right to choose. According to the Action Statement posted on its Web site, the American Family Association hopes “to restrain evil by exposing the works of darkness.” A component of this is converting individuals to Christianity. It is evident that The Response is another evangelical tool of this organization; in fact, Bearse explained that a component of the event is to convey the message that “there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.” Naturally, religious expression and the right to assemble is protected by the First Amendment. Yet some are questioning whether Governor Perry’s sponsorship of an event that—in part—envisions the United States as a Christian nation is appropriate of his office.
On June 9, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League released a statement criticizing Governor Perry; while it supports the need to address the economic and social hardships faced by many Texans, the ADL does “not agree that official statements and rallies that divide along religious lines are a productive way to address these difficulties.” The press release—authored by Martin B. Cominsky, ADL Southwest Regional Director—continues, stating that elected officials should not be using the resources at their disposal to promote events that endorse a specific religion over others. Although the statement from Governor Perry promises that he has attended functions “hosted by various faith traditions,” it does not hide the fact that The Response is Christian, albeit “non-denominational” and “apolitical.” Regardless, his sponsorship of the event has revealed which Texans Governor Perry is representing, and it is certainly not all of them.