Photos and Reflections from The Response

Posted on August 12, 2011

Here are some previously unreleased (OMG!) photos that I took at The Response last weekend in Houston. Also, some reflections. There was a lot to think about!

If I took away anything from this fascinating experience, it was that event’s apolitical veneer was a carefully-constructed PR strategy geared towards allowing obviously political messages to be conveyed without the organizers having to worry about sullying themselves with “politics” as such. That’s the angle I took for Mother Jones, and it’s what I brought up with the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer when he interviewed me earlier this week.

Yesterday on Bloggingheads, Ramesh Ponnuru described Rick Perry as “the pure expression of the Republican id,” which is more-or-less what I gleaned from The Response. Just being there felt like I was somehow witness to the GOP’s every secret desire, desires that they would ordinarily express in far more cagey language. But at The Response, any pretense of guardedness was eschewed, and the hyper-emotionalism and full-throttle worship style of American Evangelical Christianity was fused seamlessly into a Republican governing philosophy.

It’s amazing how unabashed this all was — that the party’s probable front-runner for the nomination has no problem offering a platform to the New Apostolic Reformation, which if you read about its theology sounds drawn from a secular-progressive’s absolute worst nightmare about conservative Christian politics. It makes other Response speakers like Pastor John Hagee, Tony Perkins, and the guy who called for Jews to convert seem like perfectly mainstream, reasonable people.

That Rick Perry does not feel any of this could be a liability to him — in fact, that he evidently feels it’ll be a boon to his candidacy — says a lot about the state of American politics right now, specifically within the Republican primary electorate. We are at a moment when the most bizarre and inflammatory elements of that coalition are freely surfacing, and no one is embarrassed.

I’m now considering Rick Perry the frontrunner. In the coming weeks and months, it’s going to be interesting to see journalists try and suss out the difference between his style of fundamentalist Christianity versus that of George W. Bush. In my opinion, George W. Bush would never have been caught dead at an event like The Response. True, he was more forward about his faith than most presidents, but never to the point that he’d be convening massive revival meetings and worshiping in public. More often, he demurred.

I’d also like to point out a delicious irony I noticed. The logic offered to me by Bryan Fischer about how The Response was apolitical, you know, because there is no distinction between religion and politics to begin with, is exactly the same justification used by Islamists – practitioners of political Islam — who fundamentalist Christians so often despise. For all the hyperventilating about “sharia law,” these Christians seek to implement Biblical law which, like Sharia, holds secular law to be ultimately illegitimate. Maybe this was already obvious, but Christians of this sort are not interested in thwarting the onset of sharia because they esteem the virtues of secular democracy. Rather, they want their own version of religious law to reign supreme.

I also thought I’d reiterate this anecdote, originally published at The New Civil Rights Movement, which perfectly illustrates why The Response was nothing if not a political event.

A gaggle of congregants from Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA, mulled about Reliant concourse level — forty people had made the five-hour, early morning bus trip to Houston. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said Brother Dennis Terry, the presiding pastor. “If there was ever a day and a time when the church needed to get together as one, it’s now.”

I asked how America might be lifted out of its sinful malaise. “Just last Sunday I preached out of Joel 2,” he said, “calling our people to repentance. Repentance begins in the house of God.”

As it happens, Joel 2 – a minor apocalyptic book of the Old Testament – appeared to be Gov. Perry’s primary source of scriptural inspiration for convening The Response. In his opening remarks, he read the very same passage cited by Brother Dennis.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion, Declare a holy fast, a sacred assembly,” Joel reads. “Let the priests, who
minister before the LORD, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, ‘Spare your people,
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?’

Needless to say, Brother Dennis was very taken with the governor’s piety. “I believe he’s a man of faith. I believe that he will call this nation to repentance and to faith, and I will support him,” Dennis said. “To me, this here confirmed everything I was already feeling in my heart.”

Will he encourage his congregants to vote accordingly in the Republican primary, should Perry decide to enter it? Dennis beckoned the flock to encircle me. They promptly did so. “I will encourage them,” Dennis said, the tenor of his voice escalating. “We’re gonna stand with God’s man!”

“Amen!” the flock called out. “Yessir!”

Then Brother Dennis looked me straight in the eyes. “I truly believe that Gov. Rick Perry can be God’s man for this hour, for our nation,” he said, concluding our conversation and leading his followers off toward the concession stands.

You’ll notice that the preceding anecdote is exactly the type of thing that Perry should want to happen were he running for president, which he announced he would do two days after The Response was held. Enthrall the preachers, send them home to organize, but do it under the auspice of attaining salvation — not politics. Brilliant!

The lines at concession stands, by the way, were perpetually clogged as people waited for hotdogs, nachos, and smoothies. Perry, invoking Joel, had called for an optional day of fasting – which gave this sight a tinge of irony. I asked whether beer was on sale. It wasn’t.

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