By Nick BeJeaux & Quinn Welsch
The United States of America is entering a pivotal time where the age-old methods of law and order and ideas of identity are being challenged and, in many cases, eschewed for newer and —some would argue — better ways of thinking and doing. But while some are calling for change, others call for a return to traditional values. This tension felt across the U.S. came to a head right here in Baton Rouge on Jan. 24 as the sounds of prayer and protest pervaded the air over LSU.
Prayer In The PMAC
Numbering in the hundreds, Christians from across the country prayed for America during the evangelical rally “The Response,” presented by Louisiana governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal.
For six hours, religious figures and believers delivered impassioned speeches to the audience in between contemporary Christian music at LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center. To the speakers at The Response, America is in shambles socially, politically, economically, culturally, and spiritually, and their answer is a spiritual revolution starting right here in Baton Rouge. Many insisted that America’s rights and traditional values stem from Christian values and that the country has become weaker because it has strayed from those values.
“We need to get things in the proper order and on the right foundation,” said Doug Stringer, a speaker at the event and the founder of Turning Point Ministries.
The rally was funded by the controversial American Family Association, an evangelical Christian organization labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its far-right stance on gay rights, race relations, gender roles, and religion. The Response touched on similar issues, such as race, abortion, Israel, homosexuality, and family units, albeit with a distinctively conservative message. In his invitation to the rally, Jindal wrote that we live in a world driven by “militant Islam seeking to impose Sharia law worldwide.” Jindal continued, “Our nation is faced with fatherless homes, an epidemic of drugs and crime in our inner cities, a saturation of pornography, abortion, racism – Jesus Christ, son of God and the lord of life, is America’s only hope.”
This isn’t the first “response.” Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry held a similar rally in 2011 that was also funded by the AFA, which attracted about 30,000 attendees, according to the Houston Chronicle. Perry’s rally came just days before his official announcement as a 2012 presidential candidate. Speakers at Jindal’s event maintained that The Response was not about any political affiliation, despite several crying for reform in the federal government and praying for elected officials.
“Jesus is not on the cross anymore,” Jindal said. “We pray that you will spark The Response in all 50 states across the United States of America.”
Leading the congregation, Jindal prayed for the protesters who gathered outside of the PMAC to counter The Response – one of the few times the protesters were mentioned at all. Jindal also prayed for President Barack Obama and his family, calling on God to give him “the strength to do his job.”
Audience members stayed with the speakers and musicians until 4 p.m. when the event ended, dancing, singing, and praying in unison. Many attendees were on their knees or on their stomachs during some of the more impassioned performances. Many in the audience agreed that the purpose of the event was to unify themselves under Christianity and to devote the day to prayer, but not all agreed that Jindal was the right choice for president in 2016, contending that it is still too early to tell.
Jackie Schneider, of Shreveport, said that there are better candidates. “His heart is in the right place, but I’m not so sure right now.”
Protest In The Streets
In response to The Response, community organizer and activist Peter Jenkins and LSU student Karie Holton created “Organize, Reflect, Act: A Day of Action for Justice in Louisiana,” a protest not against prayer but against hatred and prejudice in every form.
With an estimated 500 protesters of all ages, faiths (from Catholic adherents to servants of the Satanic Temple), identities, and persuasions marched from the base of Memorial Tower to the entrance of the PMAC, letting everyone know along the way how they feel about an organization like the AFA having any presence in Louisiana.
“Both rallies are freedom of expression, both groups have every right to be here; but the issue is that sometimes the First Amendment is used to shield one’s self from criticism and that’s just not going to happen with the American Family Association today,” said Carrie Wooten, director of policy, research, and programming for Louisiana Progress, one of the many nonprofits sponsoring the march. “They have every right to be here, but they don’t have the right to have their views go unchallenged. Today is about letting the AFA know that their views do not represent Louisiana’s values.”
Wooten, like most of the protesters, was not challenging the rally goers’ right to prayer, but the AFA’s insistence that their faith excuses discrimination and bigotry.
“They say that LGBT people in Louisiana are responsible for Hurricane Katrina, they say LGBT people in Uganda deserve to go to prison for the rest of their lives, they say that Muslims are a threat to America — it’s statements like that that we find absolutely unconscionable,” said Wooten. “Everyone here today is here to make them know that.”
While The Response welcomed at various preachers and religious leader, the counter protest had religious guidance of its own from Reverend Nathan Ryan of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. Reverend Keith Mozingo of the Metropolitan Community Church was also at the protest.
“I’m here because I want say that prayer is not something that can just happen with one group of people; we are all praying people and we want make sure that we are not seen as part of a group that uses prayer to oppress,” he said. “I’m praying that we continue to have openness, dialogue with others that we don’t always agree with, and I pray that they repent for the oppression they are causing; whether they know it or not.”
Once outside of the PMAC, protesters chanted slogans like “If you’re here to pray, pray the hate away,” and “Cutting funding, preaching fear. What is Jindal doing here?” 16 speakers, including LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope, Reverand Ryan, and emcee and BR poet Chacelier “Xero” Skidmore addressed the crowd until it was time to wind down.
However, ORA was designed from the beginning to be far more than just a protest. A Post-protest panel discussion and workshops were offered in Howe-Russell Hall to help the average citizen become an active citizen.
“What we accomplished today was amazing, but we need to ensure it happens every day after today if we want progress to keep going,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins sat on the panel alongside Bruce Parker, executive director of Louisiana Progress; Jack Harrison, an attorney; Keegan Hanks with the SPLC, and State Representative Patricia Smith.
“On MLK day I gave several speeches in small towns across Louisiana and the most important thing I told them was that Martin lead marches for injustices, and all of a sudden people stopped marching,” said Smith. “Today should be the first day of your life that you continue that march. Once you get together with someone else who shares your ideas about opposing injustices to anyone, there should be marches going on all over Louisiana.”