This is a guest post by Michael Tracey. He is a writer based in New Jersey and a former Secular Student Alliance group leader.
Some are wondering aloud about whether Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is a sincere religious believer. The man who will probably secure the Republican presidential nomination has certainly made it clear that he’d pursue a biblically-inspired agenda while in office, but I’ve seen a number of people nevertheless assume that Perry’s just another showman — your classic disingenuous politician, whose only goal is to win. And in the process of earning a win, this line of thinking goes, he’ll gladly mollify all the requisite GOP power-brokers to solidify bases of support. I’m not sure which is worse: someone who really believes what Rick Perry and his supporters say they believe, or someone who is just putting on airs. But that’s not really even germane here, because I think there is ample evidence to conclude that Rick Perry is the “real deal” from a conservative Evangelical standpoint. This is what conservative Evangelicals in the political world are saying about him at strategy meetings, conservative conferences, closed-door banquets, and so on. You can choose to think these leaders are either lying or being fooled, but I’m inclined to take them at their word. So here’s how I size up Rick Perry, who in my estimation has about a 70% chance of being the GOP nominee.
Let me start off with something I once thought would be obvious, but many have insisted on disputing. Make no mistake: Rick Perry consciously chose to prelude the announcement of his presidential campaign with a massive prayer rally specifically designed for conservative Evangelical Christians — and not just any prayer rally, but one of epic size and reach. More than 30,000 people attended, tens of thousands more watched via livestream with their churches or discipleship groups, and the freakin’ thing was held in a football stadium. I went, and to say it was somehow “not politically motivated” is just manifestly absurd.
The Response, as it was termed, showcased some of the most resolutely right-wing voices of the American evangelical right — notably including the traditional moral majority folks like James Dobson and Tony Perkins, figures dismissed by some opinionaters as having waning influence in GOP politics. But Perry’s success proves this is clearly not the case. In fact, a Perry victory would mean that conservative Christians will be invigorated and emboldened to an extent that would’ve seemed like a distant fantasy even under George W. Bush. I’m not exaggerating. Here’s a good piece of evidence: some of those libertarian-leaning, business-first Republicans who still exist in the Northeast are starting to get anxious, and have reportedly placed a fresh round of hortatory phone calls to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has long been considered a possible presidential contender. On Fox News Monday night, Karl Rove said there are “vibrations” in GOP circles reverberating around two remaining, savior-like figures: Paul Ryan and Christie. These wealthy donors who work behind-the-scenes — “movers-and-shakers,” in Rove’s words — must be getting desperate, because Christie has remarked just within the past few months that “short of suicide,” there was nothing he could do to convince media questioners that he had zero interest in a bid for president. “I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running. I’m not running,” Christie said. Still, the governor seems to have fielded these high-powered phone calls with humility and grace.
Here’s my point: some Republican donors are visibly nervous for an obvious reason — they know Evangelicals view Perry as the real deal. A true believer. Or, as one preacher from Baton Rouge, Louisiana told me at The Response, “God’s Man.” Not just any old politician who can sling off a few spiritual platitudes for effect, but a deeply-committed Christian who speaks regularly about the power of faith with steadfast conviction. Additionally, Perry’s proven willing to walk the walk. In the runup to last weekend’s presidential announcement, he held several closed-door meetings with leading figures of the Evangelical Right, including one on June 21st that General Jerry Boykin says he attended. Boykin is an ex-military Christian activist who served in Grenada, Somalia, and Iraq. In the video linked above, Boykin can be seen accusing Barack Obama of attempting to create a paramilitary force in America, one that would emulate Hitler’s Brownshirts.
Boykin reported being deeply moved by Perry, who “very humbly stood before a group of us and said, ‘I’m doing this because it’s what God wants us to do.’ It’s not a political ploy.” So Perry has evidently made numerous testaments of religious devotion before these private audiences with important Evangelicals. And I have heard many times now, from enough people in a position to know what they’re talking about, that he’s a rock-solid man of faith.
Get it yet? Perry views himself as the emerging key leader in a bona fide, in-your-face American religious-political movement. A movement that seeks to carry out God’s will by using the tools of the White House. If that doesn’t satisfy the criteria for a domestic religious-political fusionist agenda, I don’t know what would. And I should note that this is not some overblown conspiracy-mongering on my part. I’m simply relating what Evangelical leaders and those familiar with their feelings have told me about Perry. I’ve also perused his well-documented connections with controversial ministries, pastors, and the like. None of this required much digging at all — basic biographical information, for the most part. And we have many months to go before any of the real electoral sparks begin flying, which is plenty of time for reporters to uncover further examples of Perry’s bizarre theological associations. So expect a doozy of a ride.
The prevailing assumption is now that either Perry, Mitt Romney, or Michele Bachmann will win the nomination. It’s still hard to believe that Michele Bachmann has become a serious candidate for president. If you had asked me six months ago which person in the Republican Party simply defies caricature, I would’ve answered by saying Michele Bachmann. Without trying to be hyperbolic here, she represents secular-progressives’ worst fears about the dark depths of the conservative Christian political psyche. Whereas Mitt Romney seems like his commitment to Mormonism can be tempered, Bachmann is a pure Christian activist. That’s how she entered politics in the first place: by getting involved with local school board affairs, in order to argue that Jesus was being unfairly excluded from the curriculum. She also picketed at abortion clinics, went to Oral Roberts University for law school, and cites some of the most virulently Christian Dominionist figures as her philosophical influences. When Bachmann ran for state senate in Minnesota, she listed a biography of Robert E. Lee on her campaign website as recommended reading. The book argues that slavery was “not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect.” This is from Ryan Lizza‘s profile of Bachmann in the New Yorker — frightening but necessary to read. Prepare to become increasingly shocked as it progresses. Bachmann has also said that wives are commanded by the Lord to be submissive to their husbands. When she ran for Congress in 2006, she even described taking a job as a tax attorney on her husband’s orders, even though she was distinctly uninterested in tax law.
While I couldn’t have asked for two better candidates than Perry and Bachmann from a journalistic standpoint, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how damaging the ultimate outcome of this could be for the country. Barack Obama is now polling below 40% for the first time in his term, and the economy seems poised to continue deteriorating for the foreseeable future. Because macroeconomic indicators are nearly always predictive of general election outcomes, this means that Republicans are probably in the midst of deciding who will be the next president of the United States.
Of course, I’m not making a bulletproof forecast. Who knows what could happen between now and November 2012? But it’s pretty clear that an incumbent president would have to overcome very daunting odds to prevail in a political and economic climate like this one. Obama has to bank on the Republicans really screwing things up for themselves, which is exactly the fear right now among some conservatives about Michele Bachmann. Even if they like Michele personally, as many do, they know she’s not quite presidential material, and would make a much weaker general election candidate relative to Perry. In time, I wager, these Bachmann supporters will gravitate towards Perry, as polls already suggest is happening.
Rick Perry is a smashmouth, confident, exuberant, and skillful politician — a winning combination that seems perfectly tailored to the electorate’s desires at the moment. He is uniquely positioned to unify the GOP, which historically has yearned for someone to coalesce around in the primary without getting overly fussy about intra-party squabbles. I am not aware of any other candidate who could so seamlessly bridge the Republican Party’s traditional divide between business and religious conservatives. Perry makes both factions very, very excited. And I think it’s only a matter of time before he wins over the undecided or preliminarily skeptical. So unfortunately, my prognosis is that the Republican nominating contest may well be more important than the general election, which is a scary thought. Secular types have a lot to worry about.
I would argue that aversion to these systems of religious belief, including the relatively more benign one professed by Mitt Romney, is sufficient grounds on which to oppose all three candidacies. Mormonism’s core theology is transparently fraudulent. Interesting as an example of homegrown American frontier religion, yes, but containing enough demonstrably false assertions that electing a Mormon president would be an embarrassing statement to the world about our collective credulity. LDS doctrine includes verifiably incorrect claims about the genealogy of Native Americans, fake Egyptian hieroglyphic messages purportedly translated by Joseph Smith, and is centered around a convicted huckster who worked as a mystical treasure-hunter in the 1800s and claimed that an angel bestowed unto him a sacred breastplate. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints also has a troubled history in the United States. It fought a war against the federal government in 1857-1858 under the direction of Brigham Young, who was a legitimately theocratic governor of Utah. I won’t continue through the entire history of Mormonism, like its bogus “revelation” in the 1970s to finally include black people in church procedures, but you get the idea.
The point is that these candidates are all on the outer fringes of American religious life. And even Mitt Romney, who may well end up becoming the “safe” candidate, has pretty warped views of the relationship between divine and secular law. Recall his awful speech in December 2007, anticipated by politicos as a grand clarification about Mormonism, which was preemptively likened to John F. Kennedy‘s famous 1960 address on Catholicism before distrustful Baptist preachers. Kennedy delivered those remarks in Houston, TX, as it happens — the site of Perry’s prayer meeting. Romney was supposed to dispel any apprehensions about Mormonism’s theological weirdness with the speech, but predictably, he addressed nothing of real interest. Instead Mitt stuck to bromides about how generic “faith” is really what matters in American public life. Faith in what? He never specified, but so it goes.
And to put this in context, while my concerns with Romney are certainly grave, I am far more alarmed about Perry and Bachmann.
Thought experiment: Imagine how all this kerfuffle appears to basically-normal residents of, say, Holland? How can it be that the United States, still one of the world’s admired democracies, appears willing to nominate someone like Perry or Bachmann — people who literally view it as their mission in politics to make secular law comport with God’s will? A scary thought, but the process is now fully underway. And if the financial indicators continue to falter, coupled with persistent unemployment, there’s a very strong likelihood that Obama will be shown the door in January 2013. Many correctly predicted that the Democratic primaries in 2008 would actually trump the general election in overall importance, because for years, all signs suggested that a Democrat was heavily favored to succeed George W. Bush. It was only a matter of which Democratic candidate would prevail. Same idea here with the Republicans, I’m afraid.
I don’t necessarily endorse this view, but a vote for Obama in 2012 might well be justified on the grounds that stopping these religious nationalists from taking over the executive branch of government is a reasonable priority. And I think it’d be a legitimately-rationalized decision. If Obama operatives are somehow behind the Republican Party’s seeming intention to nominate the kind of people who will scare Democrats and secular-minded independents into line, those operatives have crafted a brilliant strategy. There will be many disaffected liberals, progressives, moderates, etc. who simply cannot bring themselves to help allow for a Perry or Bachmann presidency. Either would be a profound disaster for secular government in the United States, which has already been done great damage by Bush. Obama, for that matter, hasn’t shown much willingness at all to change course — especially on faith-based initiatives, which have remained functionally consistent across administrations, save a few minor improvements in the past year or two.
If Bachmann or, to a subtler but still major extent, Perry becomes president, we will have a chief executive who envisions him or herself as the leader of a Christian movement. There is no other way to put it. The normal rule of law in the United States is almost trivial to these people, because it so pales in comparison to God’s law — the real and eternal driving force behind our politics.
An argument can be made that George W. Bush was at least in the same vicinity of these two in terms of religious devotion. Maybe so –- we don’t know a heck of a lot about Bush’s genuine beliefs. He’d always been somewhat ambiguous and reserved when asked about them; maybe he never even gave the matter much thought. Not so with Bachmann and Perry, on a number of fronts. Unlike both of them, George wasn’t noticeably involved in grass-roots religious organizing — salt of the earth ministry, that kind of thing. He was a mainline Methodist who underwent a classic born-again experience at age 40, conveniently timed to come shortly after his wife threatened to end their marriage if George didn’t address his longstanding alcohol problem (he had just gotten a DUI). But Michele Bachmann, on the other hand, will always be a Christian activist at heart — no matter how much she presently emphasizes economic issues. Regarding Perry, many are sure to lazily label him as some kind of Bush clone. But this glosses over important distinctions between the two — Perry is much more extreme, religiously. Recall that Bush at least campaigned with the pretense of “compassionate conservativism,” whereas Perry has no time for any of that softie stuff. And I think it’ll be to his political advantage.
He’ll sail away with this thing in due time. Saddle up, y’all!