Preying for Votes: The Governor's Preachers

Perry and religious conservatives get together to bash gays

Gov. Rick Perry's religious right support raised eyebrows.
Gov. Rick Perry's religious right support raised eyebrows. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Politics and religion worked together in mysterious ways last week, as several hundred Texas ministers and their spouses were treated to upscale banquet fare, an overnight stay at the Austin Hilton, musical entertainment, and a chance to hear Gov. Rick Perry reiterate his support for legislating morality.

The private, two-day gathering seemed to carry all the trappings of an evangelical-style political rally designed to rally the flock on two fronts – the Nov. 8 ballot issue on same-sex marriages, and the March primary in which Perry hopes to recapture the Republican nomination for governor. (Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn was not invited.) The only other statewide elected official in attendance was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (see "Craddick in Dewhurst's Prayers," right).

Who picked up the estimated half-million-dollar tab for the "Pastors' Policy Briefing"? Only the Lord knows. The Texas Restoration Project, a fledgling but well-oiled group of conservative religious leaders, sponsored the event, the second in a series of briefings planned throughout the state, but the TRP says only that "private funds" make the events possible. The Texas Restoration Project does not appear to be registered as a nonprofit group or as a political action committee, which would be required to disclose campaign finance activity to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Critics charge that the events are an under-the-radar vehicle for Perry's re-election campaign and should therefore follow campaign finance disclosure laws. "Texans have a right to know who is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get pastors to support the governor's reelection campaign," said Kathy Miller, president of the progressive Texas Freedom Network.

The Dallas Morning News' Wayne Slater reported in May that the TRP is committed to registering 300,000 new "values voters" and supporting political candidates and issues that favor its so-called morals agenda. Strayhorn spokesman Mark Sanders said the comptroller applauds the group's voter registration efforts and would "love to have an invitation" to one of the group's events. "We want everyone to participate in the primary election," Sanders said. "The better the turnout, the better the chances for Comptroller Strayhorn."

Churches and other tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from endorsing political candidates; they can, however, support or oppose ballot measures such as the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage, but organized political activity to help pass the ballot issue must be reported.

"If one of the purposes of this gathering was to educate and organize people to support Proposition 2 [the ban on same-sex marriages], there is a serious issue about whether they need to disclose the [funding] sources of this activity," said Fred Lewis, executive director of Campaigns for People, a campaign finance watchdog group.

A source who attended the event spoke to the Chronicle but requested anonymity because he serves in a local congregation and was sensitive to its politically diverse viewpoints. He recorded the event and provided the audiotape to the Texas Freedom Network, which in turn provided copies to the media.

Millionaire San Antonio conservative James Leininger was in attendance, as was East Texas chicken tycoon Bo Pilgrim, who introduced the governor. The two are among Perry's most generous campaign donors, most recently chipping in $50,000 apiece to the governor's re-election campaign, according to state Ethics Commission filings.

Though the audiotape is of poor quality, there is no mistaking the fever-pitched gay-bashing theme of most of the speeches. The group is fashioned after a similar evangelical organization in Ohio that worked to pass that state's marriage amendment in November and helped produce a narrow victory there for President Bush. Critics accuse the Ohio group of operating in tandem with the Bush presidential campaign, managed by Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, now running for Ohio governor in 2006. Blackwell was one of the featured speakers in Austin. Other guests who spoke in Austin included two key players in the Republican Party of Texas – Vice Chair David Barton, a self-described Christian nationalist, and former executive director Susan Weddington, who now heads Perry's faith-based initiatives program. Weddington called Perry "a spiritual giant."

Additionally, Ohio evangelical Pastor Rod Parsley lambasted the "homosexual agenda" and railed against Islam; Arlington minister Dwight McKissic – other than Blackwell, apparently the only African-American speaker at the event – delivered a hellfire condemnation of gays and lesbians, climaxing his address with the biblical story of the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and declaring, "God has another match!" The crowd roared. "He said the most horrible things," the attendee said. "He was the most difficult to listen to."

Kelly Shackelford, who heads the Plano-based Free Market Foundation, may have stolen Perry's thunder in being the first to announce the governor's choice to fill the vacancy on the Texas Supreme CourtDon Willett, who was seated in the audience. Shackelford introduced Willett as a "strong believer in Jesus Christ. … I have no doubt where this man stands on any issue." Shackelford urged pastors to start organizing support for the upcoming constitutional election. "The other side is very organized," he said of the "No Nonsense in November" campaign, which opposes the amendment. "They are out there working in your communities."

Perry steered clear of directly incendiary comments, but left no doubt where he stands on the referendum. "For the record," he said, "this is one Texan who's going to be voting to protect the family unit this November by voting to preserve the institution of marriage between one man and one woman." Afterward, someone asked the governor what they could do to help him – the closest anyone came to mentioning his re-election campaign. Perry thought a moment before responding.

"Pray for me."

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