Dispatch from Perry’s (A)political Prayer Rally
By Daniel Rigney
When I tell friends I’ve decided to attend conservative Texas governor Rick Perry’s (non) political prayer rally in Houston this summer, eyes pop and jaws drop. Well, not quite -- but friends do express surprise. Why would any sane person want to visit that parallel universe?
Yet fools walk in. As an avid culture watcher, I’m girding my loins (and looking up the words “gird” and “loin”) as I prepare to venture forth where few urban liberals have gone before, into the twilight zone of the religious right.
I realize full well that from the perspective of religious conservatives, I myself may seem an alien being, a stranger from a strange land. Those who live in my own twilight zone call it Academia, but certain others may know it as Satan’s inner circle.
Entering the Perry Prayer Zone will be a challenging mission for me. Still, I reason, if I have survived ethnographic ventures to a Texas gun and knife show, a pride parade, a bridal extravaganza, a feminist SlutWalk against rape, and even an art car show, I will probably survive a day at The Response, Gov. Perry’s national day of Christian prayer, to be held at an NFL stadium in Houston today.
Thank goodness the event will be held in a football stadium. I was afraid we might be praying loudly and publicly on street corners like the hypocrites do. (Matthew 6)
I’ve done some homework in preparation for the field trip, following the Perry prayer story half-alertly over the last month or two in the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Observer, and national media. An early radio report put the expected crowd at 30-50,000, but later public estimates melted to 8-10,000, permitting event organizers to announce the actual attendance as a BTE (“better than expected”) 30,000+. It’s an old political crowd estimator’s trick – not that I’m saying this was a political event.
Selecting evidence from today’s field notes to confirm common liberal stereotypes of the religious right would be as easy as shooting fish in a birdbath. But I refuse to be unfair and imbalanced. Let’s leave the crude ideological stereotypes to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.
I could tell you, for example, that as I walked to the stadium from the nearby Metro light rail station I passed an archer, holding aloft a 21st-century hunting bow and announcing loudly and proudly, “Nothing like a little God, a little guns!” I will not share several similar observations that would only fortify liberal stereotypes and provide ammo to the roves of the left. I prefer to take the high road – you know, the one Jesus would have walked if he had been a blogger.
So I’ll focus instead on observations about the prayer rally that may challenge a few popular progressive stereotypes of the religious right, and I’ll even mention a few things about the event that I personally found appealing and even endearing. Like Steven Colbert’s comic persona, I don’t see religion. I see people.
[Essential Background: The Perry prayer event occurs in a spacious professional football stadium in Houston on Saturday, August 6, 2011, and runs from 10 a.m. to past 4:30 p.m. Curtains close off one end of the field, and the reconfigured space is more than half full by 11. An evangelist announces that “traffic is backed up to the airport,” implying that huge numbers of people are trying to get to Reliant Stadium from airports about ten and twenty-five miles away. The crowd cheers. [Reality alert: Houston freeway traffic is backed up every day.]
The operation is well-organized, synthesizing elements of an old-style tent revival, a rock concert, and a (non)political rally. Technologically-advanced and smoothly-running, this is a 21st century social hybrid religious event, not unlike those on view in megachurches. (Joel Osteen, Houston’s telegenic positive-thinking minister of what is reputed to be the biggest megachurch in the world, can’t make it today. He’s created his own fleeting flash event, “Night of Hope,” in the White Sox ballpark on the economically-depressed south side of Chicago. Unavoidable schedule conflict, I guess.)
Our event today was conceived by Governor Perry earlier this year and is being staged by a Mississippi "pro-family" organization that has taken anti-gay and other contested positions in recent years. The governor’s sponsorship has raised questions in several quarters about the event’s legality according to varying readings of the First Amendment. These questions are not fully and finally resolved at this writing, but the event itself is now occurring without legal intervention. The show is going on.
The event is organized theologically around the central message of the book of Joel, in what Christians call the “Old Testament.” Joel was among the minor prophets, and this brief book was probably written sometime between 400 and 900 BCE (estimates vary).
Plot summary: Joel is an old story. God is once again unhappy with his people. He sends locusts, drought, and other horrors to destroy their land and to get their attention. (Some readers may see in this text an ancient prophecy foretelling the current severe Texas drought, although the author of Joel never mentions Texas or the 21st century explicitly.) God calls his people to repent and return to the path of righteous obedience. If they repent and follow his commandments, their lands will be restored and their lives will be replenished. The author of Joel doesn't tell us how the story ends.
You may read the book differently, but it’s short, and you can read it for yourself. Warning: There may be more than one way for a reasonably honest and intelligent reader to interpret a religious text, or even a Constitution.]
At the entrance outside the stadium, an old man blows an elongated ram’s horn and then lies down flat as though dead or planking. [Text to self: Research shofar, the horn sounded in ancient Hebrew society to announce ceremonial events.] A security checkpoint, which I find more invasive than the ones at airports, pats us down (with arms only, no hands) both front and side. It’s another instance of the old and probably inevitable exchange of liberty for security. I don’t hear anyone complaining about it today.
I step into the air conditioning and size up the venue, which seats about 50,000 in its current curtained configuration. Commercial billboard signs on the back wall of the stadium indicate that this prayer event is being brought to you by [I’m not making this up] Coca Cola, Ford, Verizon, Reliant Energy, Halliburton, United Airlines and Bud Light. Nothing answers prayer like a frosty brew on a hot, muggy summer day in Houston.
Let me share with you a few things about my experience that might surprise some readers. Growing up near the Texas-Louisiana border, I have known religious conservatives, up close and personal, all my life. Largely out of congenital curiosity, I’ve attended numerous fundamentalist Protestant services -- sometimes in person, but usually via the modern miracle of television. Yet even I, living on the margins of the fundamentalist zone and witnessing its culture, am surprised by some things I see and hear today.
First Surprise: Technically Non-Partisan and Non-Political
My first surprise comes when at least two speakers ask God to protect President Obama and his family, and to bless him with Solomonic wisdom in this time of troubles. (Craig Hlvaty, who tweeted the event for the Houston Press, reports that he did hear some “prayer boos” here.) I also hear at least two evangelical preachers explicitly condemn racism in no uncertain terms as a tragic sin. This isn’t our grandparents’ evangelicalism. Some things have changed in these parts since the day Rosa Parks rode through town.
Perry and other speakers stress repeatedly that the prayer event is not explicitly political or partisan, but one would have to be a gullible birther indeed not to see that this event is part of a larger political strategy on Perry’s part to leaven the bread of his own political fortunes by “reaching out” to fundamentalists and other evangelicals who comprise much of his potential base. Politicians at today’s microphone include Gov. Perry (R-TX), Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and, via satellite, Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL). Far-right Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) is also in the house. Any description of the event as “non-partisan” means little more than that the words “Republican” and “Democratic,” or even “conservative” and “liberal/progressive,” will rarely if ever be heard today – perhaps on the advice of staff attorneys.
Please, Mr. Perry, don’t even pretend that you’re not transparent here. This is obviously a (non)political event.
Whether Gov. Perry’s own religious convictions are sincere, I cannot judge. The automatic cynic will see in today’s machinations a Machiavellian partisan ploy to play religious populists like a country fiddle, as so many political operators have done so skillfully and effectively in the past. Some cynics might even be tempted to call Perry a “fox in lamb’s clothing.” I have frankly thought so myself at times. But upon further reading, I'm not so sure. Perry is a slick operator, alright, but is he really this manipulative? Does he really want to turn the prince of peace into a Machiavellian prince of political and cultural warfare? Some Perry watchers say that he comes by his religious views authentically. I’m not so sure about his handlers, though.
Perry tells us that he and his spiritual advisors have been praying on their knees for God’s political will regarding his possible presidential bid. I don’t know his God the way he does, but I have a feeling I already know what Response his God will give to his prayerful (non)political question.
Is Perry a fox in lamb’s clothing? It’s someone else’s call. I’m judging not.
Second Surprise: God Is Not an American
The Christian right has been wrapping the American flag around the Bible for so long that I entirely expected to see a post-9/11-style display of religiously-righteous patriotism today. I see some of that here, to be sure, but it is not the dominant theme I thought it might be.
I am surprised, for instance, by how few flags are on display. Only a single U.S. flag and a lone Lone Star flag flank the rock-style concert stage. I’ve seen more flags in front of McDonald’s, if you count the McDonalds international corporate flag.
What I’m hearing today is more about national angst than about nationalist anger. Noted family guy Doctor Dobson, psychologist and evangelist, warns us that America is surrounded by “forces we don’t control” and that when our political leaders are unable to lead we must call upon God, because only He can save us now.
I hear frequent invocations of the word “crisis,” and frequent appeals to fear, if not overt and brazen attempts to stoke fear in the service of (non)political and nationalist ends. But I also hear an occasional acknowledgement that Ultimate Reality is not a patriotic American, let alone a Republican or a Democrat. One black preacher compares God to the NFL commissioner, and the Bible to the league rule book. God doesn't take sides in the game. His team is the "third team" -- the referees.There is even the suggestion that a caring God might care about others besides the U.S. (and Israel). A good God might even care about the rest of the world (which, I understand, includes a billion or two Muslims) as much as He cares about the United States, his burning city on a hill. We Americans constitute, after all, only about four percent of God’s children.
The nationalist side of the event, then, is a tempered one. Having said this, I hasten to say it is obvious that most of today’s speakers unquestionably favor a closer relationship between church and state than currently exists, and some seem even to say that the state should be under the direct and acknowledged authority of a Christian God and His church.
A woman at the microphone urges us to “pray for the 10 Commandments in our classrooms” and for the “freedom to pray in our classrooms.” (Praying for prayer?) I’m wondering: Which version of the 10 Commandments? Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5? And in which Bible (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant) and in which translation? Just asking.
As for prayer in the classroom, we had a saying in the Catholic school where I taught for many years: “As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in the classroom.” There is already private prayer in American classrooms, and there always has been. The critical question is whether there should be state-organized and state-administered prayer in accordance with an official state religion.
In a government under a Christian god, would the Bible itself become our Constitution? Would there be a Supreme Theological Court to resolve interpretive disputes? And which (non)political party would decide who the earthly judges are? Would the judges and Biblical interpreters in positions of civic authority be fallible? I guess God would be the ulatimate Decider.
In political theory there’s a name for government by religious authority. You know the word. It starts with a T.H.E.O.C.…. It means, quite literally, “government by a god or gods.” Kids, can you guess the word?
Third Surprise: Red and Yellow, Black and White. All Are Precious in His Sight.
Popular liberal stereotypes of fundamentalist evangelicals as knuckle-dragging racist bigots are unfair and out of date. I won’t pretend they’re baseless. I grew up in the Shallow South in the 1950s and 1960s, and I still remember well the two water fountains and three restrooms at the downtown Sears. I remember other things too, which are much uglier, and which I won’t recite here. I’m not easily fooled by people who say the old South is “misunderstood” on the issue of race. I remember it too well and too vividly. I don’t think I misunderstand.
But times change. If nothing changed, there would be no history. I have seen times change somewhat in the South, and mainly for the better, since Rosa Parks rode through town more than fifty years ago.
Throughout the day I see and hear a pronounced emphasis on the beauty of human diversity, and particularly racial, ethnic and national diversity. Christianity is continuing to globalize. The service today often provides simultaneous Spanish-English translation, and celebrants, though dressed similarly (Texas casual and tasteful – preferably, no caps, out of respect for God ), are a crowd of many colors.
This crowd would have been lily-white (or all black) in the Texas of my youth. Many in today’s multitude are undoubtedly white suburbans; I note that several chartered buses waiting out front are predestined for predominantly white suburbs of Houston and Dallas and other parts of the South, where frightened people often live the gated life. But while the overwhelming majority of attendees today are what South Texans call “Anglo,” a sizeable minority are African or African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American.
The crowd seems comfortably and happily – even enthusiastically – integrated – ethnically, though apparently not theologically, judging from their conformed responses to messages from the stage. As a religious liberal I imagine I am in the extreme minority. In this social context, I might even be considered on the "far left" (a term now used casually in certain radio-listening circles to refer to anyone to the left of Dwight Eisenhower, and some are not so sure even about him.)
I am not entirely comfortable here as The Other, and I am a little self-conscious about remaining seated during swells of religious enthusiasm, when all those around me are up and swaying with hands reaching toward heaven. I’m not feeling unwelcome here. Just odd. It's their twilight zone. I'm just visiting.
We hear during the keynote that outsiders like me are free to be “spectators” and will not be forced to pray (hey, thanks), but we are nonetheless urged to shed our spectator role at any time and become enthusiastic participants. Fair enough.
While the crowd is ethnically diverse, I don’t see much evidence of religious diversity here. This probably reflects what social statisticians call “self-selection.” Most of those who are not Protestant-conservative to begin with would simply not have come.
I see almost no acts of overt Catholicism, except when one woman in front of me seems to cross herself while swaying to the music. Outside the stadium after the service, I receive, free of charge, an aggressively anti-Catholic booklet about Papist and other conspiracies. Conspiracy theories, as you may know, are not entirely alien to this cultural zone. I suspect they are symptomatic of deeper fears about chaos and control, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.
Jewish participation in this event appears minimal. The Anti-Defamation League has been actively discouraging attendance for weeks. However, one speaker, wearing a yarmulke and looking like a forlorn Bob Dylan, stands before the crowd as a living testament to the evangelical community’s openness to other faiths, up to a point.
I don’t see any conspicuously self-identified Muslims here. Somehow I’m not puzzled by this. My own Unitarian Universalist church is hosting an alternative interfaith service today, inviting participants representing major faith traditions around the world, including Islam. That’s where I would normally be today, but as a blogger I can’t pass up this stadium event. For me, as a curious amateur urban ethnographer, this is the social, cultural, and (non)political event of the season.
Those who believe the U.S. Constitution guarantees not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion may have chosen to stay home today. Civil libertarians, including many Christians, are challenging this event through ACLU, arguing that the governor’s initiative violates the First Amendment clause prohibiting the establishment an official state religion. At the moment I’m not sure what Texas’s official state religion is. I’ll have to check with the governor’s office.
Regarding sexual or gender diversity, the clear majority of participants today are women, and the clear majority of speakers are men -- not at all surprising in a religious culture that remains largely patriarchal. There are gays and lesbians here, of course, but they’re not wearing sexual orientation badges, in light of the well-publicized hostility of many fundamentalist groups toward what some of them still insist on calling the “Sin of Adam and Steve.” (Who says fundamentalists don’t have a fresh and sharply-honed wit?) While gays or lesbians in the stadium may be in the choir-room closet, I later learn that more than a hundred protestors are demonstrating on their behalf outside.
During the first part of the program I am continuously and persistently evangelized by a polite young man sitting next to me, the college-aged son of a local Vietnamese-American minister. He is folding a remarkably artful origami in the shape of a rose and offering it to me as a gift, explaining to me that this gift is not unlike God’s gift to us, etc. His evangelical recruiting script is clearly well-rehearsed. He knows it cold. I tell him I’ll carry the origami gift in my memory. But thank you.
The polite young man asks me why I’m here. I tell him I’m curious. I’m not going to lie. He gives me a biographical interview, and he shows a keen interest in what skills I might bring to the Task. He wants to know whether I’ve read the Bible. He tells me I need certainty. I say “No, actually, I don’t.”
I excuse myself respectfully. I decide to stretch my legs and look for a quieter perspective from which to view the remainder of this seven-hour-long revival/concert/(non)political prayer rally.
We can’t leave the subject of social diversity without talking about economic class. I don’t have good figures here, but I would wager good money that today’s crowd is no demographic country club. I gather from signs (t-shirt messages, identification badges, bus destinations, etc.) that more than a few participants here have driven from surrounding suburbs, including blue-collar/lower-middle class suburbs in the “oil patch” of refineries and shipping facilities southeast of Houston. There may be oil executives here, but there are also those whose labor made executive wealth possible, and every stratum in between. There is even a proud contingent of motorcyclists of the “Heaven’s Angels” variety, including a woman whose insignia indicates a prison affiliation. I don’t pry for details.
Fourth Surprise: The Sadness of Joy
I’m surprised to encounter so many moments of personal and communal sadness here today, reflected in prayer themes and crowd responses. We have lost our way. We have gone astray. We are told, in the prophetic tradition of Joel, that this is a moment of darkness and dread. But sadness mingles with the religious joy and the hope of knowing that God’s new dawn is coming. This is the hope that believers seem find in their faiths, however delusional their beliefs may seem to more secular folk. I’ve noticed, by the way, that in the vocabulary of Christian conservatism (both Protestant and Catholic), “secular” and “evil” are often used more or less interchangeably.
I am suddenly reminded that the secular socialist Karl Marx described religion not just as an opiate (i.e., a pain-killer), but also as a “cry of the oppressed creature.” There is almost palpable pain in the room. Creatures are crying, and crying out. Some (especially young witnesses) testify to their sadness through the stage microphone. Some have apparent physical impairments and health conditions. Some are old and may not live to pray next year’s prayers.
And no doubt there are others here today who suffer from less visible wounds and afflictions. Some may be carrying unbearable loads of religious guilt for past pregnancies, including pregnancies they felt they couldn’t tell anyone about. Some may have secret addictions, or unwanted thoughts and feelings, or marital failures, or lacerating conflicts with parents or children. Some are unemployed, and some who are employed are financially stressed and fearful of free-falling in a roller-coaster economy. Some may not know how they are going to keep the lights on during hard times.
Today this multitude is hearing that now only God can save them, and all of us. I wonder how many believe, as Christians have thought for nearly two thousand years, that we are now living in the end times, and that the screaming nightmare of Revelation is about to descend upon the world? We’ve already dodged one Rapture this year. When will the next one come? And do some await the end times longingly, hoping they might bring heavenly release from long suffering?
Others may secretly doubt that there really and literally is, after all, a giant invisible man in the sky, who is at once both infinitely fearsome and infinitely loving, and who takes a personal interest in their lives.
Images of God and the future being propagated in the prayer rally today are metaphors, and metaphors can shape our thoughts, and our feelings, and the political images on which we act and vote. And religious metaphors can be made to serve political ends. Not that this is a political event.
I see people. More than 30,000 of them. I think to myself: If each of us is a novel (even a really bad novel), then there are more than 30,000 stories in the stadium right here and now, intertwined through family and church and politics and biblical text and tradition. There’s a story in every seat.
The writer in me can’t help wondering what these stories have been, and are, and will be. What are the stories of broken and repaired lives, of sick and healing families? What are the stories of economic hardship and unemployment in hard times. What are the financial and personal successes? What are the joys and the sorrows? What are the stories of religious faith and doubt, of heroism, of villainy, of love and hatred, of endless fear and desperate hope?
This place is a rocking festival of human emotions, especially when the guitars and drums are going full blast. I don’t see much evidence, though, of critical thinking in the service (except perhaps critical thinking about secularism and liberalism – if this were a political event). Don't think; feel.
There is an expansive range of human feelings in the spoken messages from the stage and the expressive responses of the people. The prophetic evangelist beseeches the God of Abraham and Jesus, on whom everything depends, to come and rescue his people from a terrifying future. And the people say Amen.
I don’t see apocalypse in Houston today, but I do hear plenty of apocalyptic rhetoric. There’s talk of apocalypse across the width and breadth of the land, and from many different directions, but much of it is coming from the Christian right.
Fifth Surprise: We’re a Part of History in the Making
Noted family guy Doctor Dobson, psychologist and evangelist, begins his message today with a bracing tale from World War II: the celebrated Miracle of Dunkirk. As he tells it, in June of 1940 the Germany army had driven 300,000 British troops to the French coastal port of Dunkirk, where the Brits would face certain slaughter if they were not immediately rescued and transported safely across the English Channel. In this critical moment, King George VI called for a National Day of Prayer. Three days later, thanks in part to the inspired efforts of boat-owning English civilians, the troops were rescued and returned to home soil. It was a turning point in the war.
Doctor Dobson’s causal analysis is predictably simple: The English prayed together for God’s mercy and intervention. God heard their prayers and decided to rescue the British Army. God inspired and empowered ordinary English citizens to do heroic things. God also caused Hitler to make a strategic military blunder. God further caused a storm in Europe that grounded German planes. Thus God allowed the British to escape across a clear channel.
Lesson Taken: When we pray and good things happen, God has caused them to happen. Professional historians have rather more complicated and less magical explanations, but these need not trouble us here. (For British military historian Duncan Anderson’s less magical account, for instance, search for BBC History’s web article “Spinning Dunkirk.”)
The point is that if we pray during times of crisis, God will make good things happen. Except when He doesn't. In April, Gov. Perry called on Texans to pray to God for rain to end one of the worst droughts in this region’s history. Here it is August, and at this writing we’re still dry as a cow’s skull in the desert. Hello, God? Are you there? It’s us. Texas.
I tweeted in April that I was hoping Gov. Perry would do a rain dance in front of the state capitol building, so that the whole world could enjoy watching it endlessly on You Tube. I’m still waiting for my wish to come true, but I’m afraid it’s wishful thinking. We earthlings seem to do a lot of wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, I keep faith that it will rain in Texas eventually, and that when it does, Gov. Perry will herald the Rain Prayer Miracle. But for now we must remain patient. God doesn’t always answer prayers with an eye on our political primary calendars.
Today’s (non)political stadium event, we are assured, is not about presidential politics. It’s all about the power of prayer. We are told this event in Houston today may be a significant turning point in American history, as Dunkirk was for our fellow Christians (sort of), the British. Several evangelists today give voice to the faith that God is paying close attention to our prayers here in the football stadium. We are assured that God is in the house. If He doesn’t come and save us soon (say, by 2012), we’re pretty well cooked -- like the baked and cracked Texas earth around us.
I feel privileged to be here today for this potential world-changer. I had no idea I was living so close to an epicenter of history. Just knowing this makes a fella feel more powerful, and more hopeful, and more in tune with the Deeper Reality. This has certainly been a day well-invested and well-spent.
Sixth Surprise: Rise of the Young Evangelicals – Changing of the Gods?
A poignant moment comes when pastors around the stadium, surrounded by small groups from their own churches, receive a traditional “laying on of hands” in celebration of their spiritual leadership. These “prayer huddles” or “prayers of three” [or more] water the grass roots of evangelical religious and (non)political organization from the bottom up.
Even more poignant is the ceremony that follows, in which older and younger generations of evangelicals acknowledge and support each other, affirming both solidarity and continuity through time. The old fundamentalist guard is dead or dying: Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Doctor Dobson (who is here today). They’re passing the cup to their spiritual sons, and even a few daughters.
I do not know the names of today's rising evangelical leaders, but some of them must be out there already in the fields of the Lord, starting to work the lucrative revival and television circuits. Books have been written about new directions among young evangelicals, and I hope to read a few of them someday. But here I’m seeing the intergenerational passing of the cup with my own eyes -- both on the stage and in the earnest and eager young crowd that has formed on the floor below. These are the leaders and followers of the evangelical future.
Most obviously, music (mainly Christian rock or “Christian contemporary”) creates an invisible bond among young participants. Music has long been a powerful part of religious life in the United States. I remember well the standard hymns of the older generation of fundamentalist Protestants with whom I grew up. ("Blessed be the ties that bind.") Today’s evangelical songbook is also a tie that binds, though it is assuredly not my grandparents’ hymnal.
The music has been nearly wall-to-wall today. When I walk into the stadium this morning at about 9:30, country singer Ricky Skaggs and a racially mixed choir singing black gospel music is warming the crowd. (More black gospel, please!) Later there will be male and female vocalists singing ballad-like songs with religious themes. As the day wears on, the music becomes more rocklike, with strong drums and bass guitars, and lyrics that are catchy, simple, and repetitive – even trancelike. I don’t know Christian pop rock, but the group playing this afternoon, whose name I don’t catch, really seems to know its business.
A young revivalist steps forward and preaches with an informal earnestness and confidence that starts calmly and builds progressively in volume and emotional intensity. He knows how to work a house.
This guy is scary good. In my entire seven hours at Perry Prayer, I have only one jaw-dropping moment, and this is it. I am trying to refrain from calling this moment Hitleresque. My older son, who’s an even more intense culture watcher than I am, has persuaded me that we should not use the name of Hitler in political discourse unless we’re talking about the actual Hitler. Only Hitler was a “Hitler.”
I will just say, then, that at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of August 6, 2011, I caught a fleeting glimpse of what it might have been like to be in the crowd at the Nuremberg rally of 1934, when filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl powerfully captured the “Rally for Unity and Strength” in her masterpiece of propaganda, “Triumph of the Will.”
Imagine a stout younger man, not handsome, just a regular average guy, dressed sloppy-casual with blue-green shirttail hanging out over faded and worn jeans. He’s completely unpretentious. (See how casually he’s dressed?) He’s earnest. He’s sincere. He’s like you. He knows what you’ve been through. He shares your faith. He’s here on a prophetic mission. He’s here to talk about this historic moment when you answered the call to help usher in a Third Great Awakening in American history [The evangelist omits mention of the Social Gospel movement (ca. 1900), often described as the Third Great Awakening, with which I personally identify, but which many conservatives loathe. The Social Gospel gave religious impetus to socially progressive and agrarian populist movements and to the New Deal. Let’s not get into it now.]
The young evangelist says it’s this generation’s turn to awaken and lead America out of the darkness and into the light. The future belongs to youth.
We’ve been building toward this moment. A previous speaker has told us that this generation of America’s youth has been “subjected to more wickedness than any other generation in American history.” (Really?) We’re learning that “historically, revivals start in the younger generation.” The young hear the Call, and the young Respond. Something miraculous is happening here today. Our Dunkirk moment has arrived.
By now the younger evangelicals in the crowd have taken over nearly the first third of the floor seats, in front of the stage, about ten or fifteen rows deep. This is the high energy section.
The evangelist’s voice grows louder. The crowd responds. They’re waving. They’re swaying. It’s just like a secular rock concert, complete with something resembling a mosh pit, but without the plank passing. But this is no ordinary rock concert. This is a wholesome rock concert. The kids are more conventionally dressed, with many fewer tattoos, and no neon hair. And they’re alive with a spirit of holiness – mostly without drugs, I’m supposing.
A few people on the front row are falling to their knees. It is written that “every knee will bend.” One young man goes fully prostrate. Has he been slain in the spirit? Is this what charismatic and pentecostal Christianity look like in 2011? Is this the modern-day equivalent of a Shaker meeting?
The evangelist is getting ever louder and more insistent. He shouts his message. “This Is The Hour! This Is The Hour!”
The crowd answers in voice and movement in what is rapidly coming to resemble a mass hysteria. God is calling and they’re responding with their whole being. It’s religious ecstasy. I’m trying to avoid the word “climactic” here for reasons of good taste.
Did I mention that their arms are outstretched in front of them – sometimes one arm, sometimes two – in a manner barely distinguishable from a Nuremberg salute? Nearly everyone in the stadium is participating in this hysteria, but the young in the front rows are the most out of control. Or are they really the most controlled?
This could well have been a rock concert. Or a climactic Superbowl finale. But it’s a rocking domed tent revival. All I can say is, Thank God this is a (non)political rally.
The crescendo of religious fervor crests and holds for maybe two minutes, and then the mood subsides and becomes somber again. More prayer. By 4:30, the crowd seems tired, and many are surely hungry, since most, including Gov. Perry, have been fasting all day. I’m glad I stuffed those two protein bars into my pocket before I came. Fasting is not one of my gifts.
The last speaker of the day says “Let’s do this again sometime.” Cheers.
Am I glad I came? Yes. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day at an epicenter of history? Would I do it again? Probably not.
The crowd sings a final song. Slow. Repetitive. Almost mournful. It’s called “I’m sorry.” Its lyrics are : “I’m sorry.”
For Protestant fundamentalists and other evangelicals, this has been a day of national repentance, a day when we mourn our failure to live according to the will of God. Today’s preachers have reminded us of our personal and national sins. Our failure to end abortion. Our failure to enforce traditionally-idealized norms of sexual morality. Our failure to create well-functioning families and schools and streets. Our failure to fortify the nation and to secure it from the Enemy. And perhaps most urgently: Our failure to work together, in a non-partisan way, to put our government’s and nation's financial house in order without raising taxes on the rich (the job creators) or reducing the cost of maintaining a permanent war economy. Can’t we all work together without political conflict, like they did in 1776, and become once more one nation under God?
I don’t hear much talk today about materialistic values or corporate power or financial greed or sexual bigotry or extreme and widening economic inequalities here and abroad, or about oil-based environmental destruction or war or the mass manipulation of human emotions for political and economic ends.
I have recently learned, however, that some in the “emerging church” wing of the evangelical movement think these latter issues are important – indeed, central -- to Christian concerns. I would add that these concerns might also be Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist. And perhaps even universally human.
The service’s closing words: “Hate only sin. Fear only god.” There’s that f-word again. I’ve been hearing it a lot today in all sorts of contexts. What’s that about?
Meanwhile, Gov. Perry is praying to know God’s will for his future. I’m guessing that after our prayers today, God will want to rescue America, and that He will want Perry to step forward and lead prophetically. I’m already imagining a bumper sticker: “Pray for Perry. Pray for America.”
It’s getting on toward evening as I leave this (a)political twilight zone and walk back to the Houston Metro light rail station. It’s been a long day, and this liberal, semi-secular, anti-life, anti-family guy is going home.