Rick Perry Keeps the Faith

Perry continues to do business with the fringe of the Religious Right

It’s been a month and a half since Rick Perry launched his presidential bid with The Response, a fundamentalist rally at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Over two months have passed since I published “Rick Perry’s Army of God,” an in-depth look at Perry’s connections to the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement of radical Christians who dominated The Response.

My article and others generated a tremendous response — so much so in fact that I’ve had a hard time keeping up with everything. But now that the interview requests have mostly stopped coming in and the media hubbub has died down, I want to take stock of developments since The Response.

First, let’s put one thing to bed for good: the notion that The Response was fundamentally an apolitical event. This was a talking point peddled by the Perry campaign and swallowed by the mostly credulous mainstream press. The recent career moves of long-time Perry apparatchik Eric Bearse, the guy most responsible for pushing that risible idea, underscore the point. Between 2001 and 2007, Bearse collected a taxpayer-funded paycheck as Perry’s chief speechwriter. Earlier this year, he went to work for the American Family Association, the Mississippi-based group that funded The Response and is listed as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Shortly after The Response Bearse went back to work for the Perry presidential campaign. Are you keeping track? It is that same Eric Bearse who is now explaining why the American Family Association is emailing The Response attendees to hook them up with Champion the Vote, which AFA’s Don Wildmon described in an email to The Response attendees as “a friend of AFA whose mission is to mobilize 5 million unregistered conservative Christians to register and vote according to the Biblical worldview in 2012.”

As the San Antonio Express-News put it, with admirable restraint:

Eric Bearse, who was spokesman for The Response, stood by the idea that [The Response] was not a political event.

“The Perry campaign hasn’t used any of the data from the event for any type of political purpose,” said Bearse, who now is with the Perry campaign but said he was not responding on its behalf. “The AFA sending out an email to register people — if that is political, then I guess so is the activity of the secretary of states’ offices in all 50 states.”

A secretary of state’s office, however, is unlikely to say, as Wildmon did, “The Response was just the beginning of a nationwide initiative to return America to the principles on which she was founded, with God at the center of our nation.”

I wonder who God, Champion the Vote, the American Family Association, and Perry-aide-turned-AFA-spokesman-turned-Perry-aide Eric Bearse want you to vote for? I bet whoever he or she is has a full head of hair and owns lots of hand-tooled boots.

And sure as sin, Champion the Vote is now helping to organize “One Nation Under God” house parties in November, where participants will gather to watch three hours of speechifying from the likes of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, fundamentalist historian David Barton, Newt Gingrich … and Rick Perry.

Another question that arose around the time of The Response: Was this a one-off thing for Perry, would he kick his friends in the New Apostolic Reformation movement to the curb after he had used them to launch his campaign?

For the most part, I would say no. On one hand, The Response website has been inexplicably taken down, including seven-plus hours of video. (“The website is down because the event has passed,” wrote AFA spokesperson Cindy Roberts in an email to me. “You may Google YouTube for clips.) This calls to mind the unexplained disappearing of C. Peter Wagner’s endorsement on The Response website in the weeks before the event. Wagner is the intellectual architect of the New Apostolic Reformation. You might remember Wagner for his comments on the problems of having sex with the Sun Goddess.

Bruce Wilson, at Talk2Action.org, writes that the disappearance of The Response website is “startling and raises the obvious question; what about The Response might candidate Perry, who stands a chance of becoming the next president of the United States, want to hide?”

Wilson, who’s determined that at least 17 official “apostles” were involved in The Response, goes on to speculate that Perry might be distancing himself from Wagner & Co. because of mounting evidence that they “advocate burning books and scripture (including books of Mormon), and destroying religious relics associated with Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.”

I’m not so sure.

It’s not really Perry’s style to back down, especially when large swaths of the mainstream punditry are running defense for the Religious Right. (I was honored to be in the company of the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza and The Daily Beast‘s Michelle Goldberg when New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller each lectured the three of us on the proper way to cover religion and politics. Thanks, Ross! Thanks, Lisa!)

And it’s probably unwise to read too much into the website’s disappearance. But most important, we have evidence that Perry continues to embrace the fringe of the Religious Right, including the apostles and prophets movement.

This week, Perry announced that one of the co-chairs of his leadership team for the Florida straw polls is Pam Olsen, “one of the most plugged-in evangelicals you’ve never heard of in Florida,” according to the Miami Herald.

As Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches has documented, Olsen is an “anti-gay crusader” who runs with the apostles and prophets crowd:

Olsen founded the Tallahassee International House of Prayer after she “received a prophetic word through Cindy Jacobs that God was going to use her as a mighty weapon against the enemy through the prayer movement and that He was going to raise up a physical location that would be a place of refuge for people, pastors and missionaries to come and pray.” (emphasis in original). International House of Prayer founder Mike Bickle and Jacobs were supporters of Perry’s The Response and Bickle spoke at length at the event.

Like many of the prophets, Olsen has linked natural disasters to gay marriage and embraces Seven Mountains dominionism, the doctrine that Kingdom Christians are to take control of society’s power centers and implement biblical values in preparation for Jesus’ return.

But unlike, say, Michele Bachmann I think Perry is capable of religious shape-shifting when needed. No, he can’t, won’t and doesn’t need to morph into a liberal Protestant. But he can certainly appeal to a somewhat more generic conservative Christian audience.

Earlier this month, Perry spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. As Sarah Posner describes it, Perry got at the heart of the evangelical experience:

The speech was quintessentially evangelical, but without the hallmarks of the neo-Pentecostalism that pervaded his prayer event in Houston, The Response, last month. No revelations straight from God. No signs and wonders. Just an ordinary, lost and broken guy with a Road to Damascus moment stripped dry of spirit-filled moments of lightening and tongue-talking. Clinical, if you will.

Even as Perry gives it up to God, they — the evangelicals of the GOP base — seem to increasingly reach for the hem of his Armani suit.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 6:57 pm CST
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