Houston (CNN) – Turning a Houston football stadium into a Texas-sized mega-church, Gov. Rick Perry took a political leap of faith just as he is contemplating a run for president.
The potential GOP contender delivered a script laced with Scripture at Saturday’s daylong prayer and fasting event, dubbed “The Response.”
On stage for just 10 minutes, Perry called on God’s help to comfort Americans reeling from the nation’s troubled economy.
“I love this country deeply,” Perry said.
The governor read from the Book of Joel, a chapter of the Old Testament that calls for repentance in times of hardship.
Leading thousands of worshippers in prayer, Perry made a direct appeal to the heavens.
“Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government and as a nation we have forgotten who made us,” Perry prayed.
In an apparent gesture to critics who have accused him of mixing prayer and politics, Perry joked, “God is wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party.”
Other speakers at the event also prayed for divine intervention to get the economy moving.
“Pray for the economy. Pray for businesses. Pray for jobs,” Doug Stringer, the event’s national mobilization coordinator said.
The gathering of church-goers, evangelical pastors and conservative activists was part revival, part rock concert. Organizers said the event was open to all faiths. But the message from the stage was decidedly Christian.
“Mercy Jesus. Jesus have mercy,” Luis Cataldo, pastor of the International House of Prayer, shouted to the worshippers.
A few dozen protesters, who gathered outside the stadium, accused the governor of violating the nation’s long-standing tradition of separating church and state
“Gov. Perry, as the governor of the second-largest state in the U.S.A., should not be participating in a prayer rally in his official capacity as a governor,” Stephanie Vogt said at the protest.
Other protesters blasted Perry for co-hosting the event with the American Family Association, a conservative group that has labeled gay rights activists “Nazis.”
“I think it's reprehensible for him associate himself with these groups, these hate groups. I don't want my governor doing that. I don't want any leader doing that,” Bryan Veazey, a gay civil rights supporter, said.
At a July news conference in the state capital, Perry said it was unfair to tie him to all the event’s participants.
But critics say Perry can’t have it both ways, appealing to Christian conservatives while keeping a distance from controversial statements coming from what liberals regard as “the religious right.”
One lead pastor at “The Response,” televangelist John Hagee, once said God allowed the Holocaust to happen to lead Jewish people to Israel.
On stage, Hagee praised Perry’s spiritual leadership at the event.
“We pray for our Gov. Rick Perry, who has had the courage together to call this kind of fasting and prayer just as Abraham Lincoln did in the darkest days of the Civil War,” Hagee prayed.
For the most part, speakers at the event steered clear of hot-button social issues.
Pastor John Postel, who leads the God and Country Church Fellowship in the Houston area, approved of the event’s religious appeal for economic salvation.
“I think God is the help to anything,” Postel said.
Many worshippers at the gathering said they were more focused on the message, not the high-profile messenger.
“I didn’t come here for Rick Perry. I came for the day of prayer,” Glenda Sherrod said.
It’s unclear whether “The Response” helped or hurt Perry’s chances for 2012.
In the coming days, he will be answering a different calling, from GOP fund-raisers and activists who would like to see the governor jump into the 2012 race.