A Cross or a Crossbeam?
Just Published: Playbook for Progressives

Prayer Service or Tea Party Rally?

Today's post is from David R. Dow, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Houston and the litigation director at the Texas Defender Service. Dow is the author of The Autobiography of an Execution and Executed on a Technicality: Lethal Injustice on America’s Death Row.

RickperrySomewhere between the parking lot and the entrance to Rick Perry’s prayer-fest at Reliant Stadium, before a female security guard waved me through the turnstile rather than pat me down after her male counterpart had deserted his post in the blistering heat that felt hotter than the 102 degrees my dashboard thermometer warned, I saw a black guy wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, over his shoulders and head, standing in the shade cast by a solitary tree, blowing a ram’s horn, known in Judaism as a shofar. I learned how to blow one when I was in Jewish day school. It takes practice, more like playing a trumpet than a kazoo. I asked him how long it had taken him to be able to get such good sound. He said, Not very long. It is a gift from God.

He was the last black guy I saw for a while. In Houston this is surprising. When I ride my bike at lunch-time from my office at the eastern edge of the University of Houston’s sprawling 700 acre campus over to the student center, I hear a dozen languages and see people from twenty countries. Houston’s population has nearly as many blacks as whites, more Hispanics than either, and one of the most rapidly growing Asian populations in the U.S. Inside Reliant Stadium, I could have been in Maine or Montana. After the guy blowing the shofar, I didn’t see another black face until a female pastor talking too softly for me to hear gave the morning’s second sermon.

News reports claim there were 30,000 people there, but I don’t think so. I’d put the number at half that. People walked out and came back in – I did twice. But either way, it wasn’t the number I noticed. It was the complexion. The woman on stage doing a very impressive job of simultaneous Spanish translation had no listeners. In a state where non Hispanic whites make up less than half the population, 90 percent of the people inside Reliant were white folks. If this demographic is the future of the Republican Party, the Republican Party has no future.

Outside there were some protesters, but not many. (It cost $15 to get into the parking lot.) A single engine plane circled overhead pulling a sign extoling the first amendment. One guy stood on the perimeter waving a huge Israeli flag, and three or four people stood in the draft trying to keep cool. I spotted a couple carrying a hand-written sign reading Separation of Church and State Protects Religious Liberty.

Inside the mood was tentative. Nobody seemed quite sure whether this was supposed to be an innocuous Sunday morning service at a megachurch or a fiery Tea Party insurrection. After a long introductory musical set, the program stuck to a routine: a short sermon, then a song, another sermon, another song. During the music, maybe five percent of the people would stand and sing along, or just sway, arms raised in a V, the Protestant expression of piety roughly equivalent to Orthodox Jews rocking back and forth, eyes closed, before the Torah.

Of course, if any Jews were there to pray, much less any Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or Sikhs, they would have had to select their own biblical passages. The pastors on stage seemed locked in a competition to see who could mention Jesus the most times in a single sentence.

By that measure, Rick Perry himself fared pretty well. When the Governor took the stage, about two hours in, you could feel the crowd straining to create energy, like a baseball game where the home team is trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth, but it fizzled. More than half of the Governor’s remarks were readings from Scripture, and his cadence is designed for the stump, not the pulpit. People cheered at every twanged mention of Jesus, but he never gave the crowd the red meat they’d come for. When he finished, hundreds streamed for the exits, like there were two outs, two strikes, and nobody on base.

The closest the day came to controversy was when a speaker warned against tolerating sexual immorality. He could have been talking about divorce or premarital sex, I suppose, but I got the sense it was code for gays. Yet even he couldn’t stir up the crowd. Maybe it was the poor acoustics. Between musical sets, except for when the Governor was talking, people paid about as much attention to what was happening on the stage as frequent fliers pay to the flight attendants when they tell you how to fasten your seatbelt. Or maybe even the Evangelicals are more concerned about unemployment than who is sleeping with whom. 

After nearly four hours I’d had enough and headed back to my car. Under that same scrawny tree I saw that same black guy still blowing the shofar. I asked whether I could take his picture. As he said I could, a security guard rolled up in an electric cart and told him he had to move along. 

Rick Perry photo by Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons.