It is no secret that Bobby Jindal is praying very seriously about a run for the White House. This weekend, his prayer will look a lot like a giant evangelical rally in Baton Rouge.
The governor of Louisiana is keynoting a six-hour worship gathering on Saturday called "The Response: A Call To Prayer For a Nation In Crisis" at Louisiana State University. The event, sponsored by the conservative and controversial American Family Association, aims to spiritually reawaken America in light of "unprecedented struggles" the country is facing: "financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters … fatherless homes, an epidemic of drugs and crime in our inner cities, a saturation of pornography in our homes, abortion, and racism." The American Renewal Project, a non-profit spearheaded by conservative political operative David Lane that aims to get more Christians involved in politics, is also behind the event. Lane hopes to recruit 1,000 pastors to run for political office this campaign cycle. The Response coincides with the state's Right to Life March, which is also happening Saturday on LSU's campus and which Jindal is also keynoting. Together, the events are poised to draw thousands.
Organizers say the Response is purely about spiritual renewal, not politics. But from the get-go, those lines are blurred. Jindal invited 49 other governors to attend the Response. "This gathering will be apolitical in nature and open to all who would like to join us in humble posture before our Creator to intervene on behalf of our people and nation," Jindal explained to the governors, in a letter obtained by the Christian Broadcasting Network. "There will only be one name lifted up that day–Jesus!"
The irony in the event has several layers. To begin, Jindal's invitation to the governors, like most of the Response's promotional materials, draws inspiration only from passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, to support an event aimed at lifting up Jesus Christ. His letter primarily cites the Hebrew prophet Joel, who likely lived in Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 BC). Joel tells the Hebrew people to "declare a holy fast," "call a solemn assembly," and "summon the elders," to "cry out to the Lord.” The Response organizers are trying to imitate those instructions with this event, but conflating Joel's call to return to the Hebrew God with a contemporary evangelical call to return to Jesus changes the prophet's original context and the significance of the words for today's Jewish community.
Next, for the Hebrew prophet Joel, to call the elders is actually a political move, not just a spiritual one. The prophet goes on to lament a plague of locusts, that like an invading army that has destroyed his own nation's fields and farming prospects. His call to God for aid is a political plea on behalf of his people. Jindal and fellow organizers are using a political Bible passage to promote an event that they say has a solely spiritual ambition. And yet, even as Jindal says the event is apolitical, he wrote an open invitation to the event on official state letterhead, and hosted 72 organizers for the event at the Governor's mansion in December.
Perhaps most importantly, the Response in the United States is becoming more than a spiritual institution: It is a prelude to a presidential run. Five days after Rick Perry held a Response rally in August of 2011, he declared his candidacy for president. Neither Perry nor Jindal are evangelicals—Perry is a life-long Methodist and Jindal is Catholic—but for both, the Response event is a way to harness the spirituality of the conservative evangelical base for their own political ambitions. It is no small reward, either. Perry’s event drew some 30,000 people in Houston.
The Response may be the largest religious base Jindal is courting, but it is not the only one. After the Response, Jindal is headed to Naples to speak at the Legatus Summit, a annual conference for Catholic business leaders. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is speaking at the event, but Fox News’ Bret Baier and actor Gary Sinise withdrew their participation earlier this month due to controversy over the group’s opposition to gay marriage.
It is not surprising that Jindal would appeal to this conservative religious base. He is a Hindu convert and a Rhodes scholar biology major who supports creationism. He's continually fought the courts and the Obama administration for his signature school voucher program that uses public dollars to pay for private and religious schooling. This week, he went after the U.S. House of Representatives for failing to pass an anti-abortion measure on the eve of the national March for Life. "It shouldn't take a lot of political courage to stand up and say we are going to end late-term abortions in America," Jindal told Fox News Thursday night.
Jindal has also been hammering radical Islam. During a 10-day economic and foreign policy trip to Europe, Jindal blasted so-called "no-go" zones, supposed communities in Europe where non-Muslims are not allowed and where sharia law runs rampant. Fox News later issued an apology for promoting the term, clarifying that no such zones exist. Jindal didn't slow down. "Radical Islamists do not believe in freedom or common decency nor are they willing to accommodate them in any way and anywhere," he said in a speech to the Henry Jackson Society in London. "We are fools to pretend otherwise. How many Muslims in this world agree with these radicals? I have no idea, I hope it is a small minority." He added: "Let's be honest here, Islam has a problem. If Islam does not support what is happening in the name of Islam, then they need to stand up and stop it."
Jindal's past history of blending of religious and political themes only makes it even more clear that the Response will not be strictly spiritual, despite what organizers say.