Rick Perry, the Tea Party, and the Failure of Frontier Individualism

By the frontier ethos that Gov. Perry and the Tea Party embrace, failing to look out for your neighbor is not a sin, but a virtue.

But in the Christian ethos that he and others of the Republican Right claim to embrace, failing to care for the poor, sick, and alien is the greatest of sins, not some fortuitous culling of the herd. As I argued last week, salvation seems to be less important to God than our living as Jesus lived, with compassion and in service to others. But when Gov. Perry recently led a mammoth evangelical prayer meeting in Texas, he said that "(God's) agenda is not a political agenda, His agenda is a salvation agenda." In so saying, he aligned himself with all those churches I was speaking of last week who preach individual salvation and praise God, but fail to engage the Bible's ethical teachings and the example of Christ healing, feeding, and reaching out to those who were excluded and trampled down.

When politicians and people of faith suggest a Christian alternative to frontier individualism—the completely Christ-like story that we are called to journey together, to love each other, and to take care of each other—they find themselves labeled by those on the Right as "socialists." Our president—a first-rate legal mind who gave up the prospects of a monumental salary in some monstrous law firm to serve and teach—is labeled as un-Christian because he calls for shared responsibility, and his policies are decried as dangerous. In fact, Richard Land, the director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, even went so far as to say that "most evangelicals and social conservatives don't think the country can survive four more years of Barack Obama."

It is one of the most troubling partisan statements to come out of an American religious denomination in recent memory. Bill Clinton's outsized libido didn't wreck the country. George W. Bush's unilateral declarations of war and record deficit spending didn't wreck the country. Hell, none of the ten worst presidents managed to destroy this country, and, according to US News and World Reports, Obama is most certainly not among them. Is Obama's desire to extend health care benefits—or jobless benefits—to people like my recently-fired friend actually so dangerous?

It is if you see the world as a frontier individualist does.

I would never say that Gov. Perry or members of the Tea Party are not Christian, although clearly we understand the call of Christ in different ways.

But I will say that American frontier individualism is un-Christian. You will find nothing in the life of Jesus or in the life of the early Church to suggest that we are all on our own, or that compassion is a weakness. In the gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Letters of Paul, it is a primary virtue.

Like Gov. Perry, I live in Texas, and I love this state. I really do.

But I am reminded at times like these of one of my favorite bumper stickers from the Bush era:

"Yeehaw!" is not foreign policy.

It's not much of a domestic policy either.

And it's certainly not a Christian belief.

10/12/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.
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