Gov. Rick Perry, who has made economic populism the cornerstone of his political ambition in Texas, has jumped headfirst into America’s culture war as he ponders whether to run for president of the United States.
Perry has asked one of the nation’s leading anti-gay groups, the American Family Association, to sponsor a “Day of Prayer and Fasting” in Houston later this summer. It’s billed as an “apolitical Christian prayer meeting,” but on Tuesday the event drew heated rebukes from the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Sparking the controversy are the group's views on Christianity, its staunchly anti-gay platform and the inflammatory statements of one its executives, Bryan Fischer. In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, AFA president Tim Wildmon said Jews, Muslims, atheists or any other non-Christian would "go to hell" unless they accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Wildmon's father, Don, who famously took on iconic television programs like Three's Company for promoting what he saw as an immoral lifestyle, is listed as one of the event's chief organizers.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the governor had been planning the event since December and was comfortable with the Tupelo, Miss.-based AFA as a host of the social conservative extravaganza. AFA is picking up the tab for the event, including the rental of Reliant Stadium in Houston, home to the NFL's Houston Texans.
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"This is an organization that promotes safe and strong families," Miner said. "The governor looks forward to participating in this prayer service." Perry invited all of the nation's governors and various religious leaders to attend the Aug. 6 event. So far, Sam Brownback of Kansas, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, is the only governor who has confirmed he will attend. Miner said there would be more announcements about attendees forthcoming.
The announcement of the event has heightened speculation that Perry is courting religious conservatives on his way to a run for the White House. Perry said he'd think more about a presidential bid at the end of the special legislative session, which is now entering its second week.
The association to which Perry is hitching his prayerful wagon has generated headlines for urging a boycott of Home Depot, which it perceives as overtly pro-gay. Miner said Perry was not participating in the Home Depot boycott. AFA has also come under fire for promoting the views of Fischer, its director of issue analysis. Over the years, Fischer has blamed gays for the Holocaust and has called on Muslims to convert to Christianity or face the wrath of U.S. military power. He also once blogged that social welfare programs made black women want to “rut like rabbits.” That controversial comment was later removed from AFA’s website, but the liberal watchdog group Right Wing Watch posted a screen grab. Fischer is still listed as a one of six "spokespersons" for the association.
The association's stance on gays and Fischer's remarks prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal civil rights group that tracks the activities of extremists on the right wing of the political spectrum, to label AFA a “hate group” in 2010.
“In my opinion there is nothing remotely mainstream about this event,” said Mark Potok, the center’s director of intelligence. “The governor has invited haters to help him put on a day of prayer which seems ultimately aimed at demonizing gays and lesbians.” Potok said listing AFA as a hate group was a no-brainer given “outrageous statements made every week of the year.”
It is not uncommon for conservative politicians — from Michele Bachmann to Newt Gingrich — to make appearances on Fischer's radio show and fill the stage at AFA events. But Perry may be the first elected official to organize an event in conjunction with the group, said Kyle Mantyla, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, a liberal watchdog group.
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"That's something we've never seen before," Mantyla said. "Most of the time, it's religious right groups set up these conferences and then elected leaders show up and speak."
Dena Marks, a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League's southwest regional office, said the summer prayer event was "inappropriate and misguided."
"Government officials shouldn't be encouraging citizens and fellow elected officials to participate in specific religious events," Marks said. "We've long urged elected officials at all levels to respect the separation of church and state and refrain from endorsing or promoting a religion.''
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also objected to what he saw as the governor's legitimizing of the group's positions.
"I don't think any elected official should be associated with a group that holds extremists or hate filled views targeting any religious or ethnic minority," he said.
Former Perry speechwriter Eric Bearse is the chief spokesman for the event, which is being dubbed "The Response." Asked about the "hate group" label from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Bearse said, "I think there are certain groups with a very secular agenda that spend a lot of time demonizing organizations that have biblical leanings or seek to implement biblical principles."
Bearse said neither Fischer's writings nor any controversy surrounding the group were relevant to the event, whose mission is to get Americans to pray for God's help at a time of overwhelming economic and social challenges. Bearse said people of all faiths are invited to attend.
But Wildmon, AFA's president, stressed the Christian nature of the event and said people of other religions were "free to have their own events." He insisted his group did not hate anyone, but he said that people who do not embrace Christianity were headed for eternal damnation.
"It's not just Jews or Muslims," Wildmon said. "It's anybody that rejects the free gift of salvation through Christ. The Bible teaches there's heaven and hell. Those who believe go to heaven. Those who don't go to hell."
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