Drudge linked to an article about Rick Perry’s faith in this morning’s Washington Post: “Perry casts himself as spiritual, forsaking talk of jobs for a day”
But before I talk about the article and the role of faith in today’s politics, I want to point out that both the web title and URL of the article are very different from its published title: “Perry casts himself as anti-intellectual, says life shaped by faith“. Something tells me that the WaPo editors intervened before the article went to press, but weren’t able to change the working title of the piece that was saved on their server. Oops.
And so, once again we see the urban intellectual mindset in its full glory, revealed in a cyber Freudian slip. The Anchoress explored this topic a few weeks ago in response to a piece by New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, which called for “tougher questions” to be asked about the religious beliefs of Republican candidates. A commenter replied, “For Bill Keller, the votes are in: Belief is the leading indicator of stupidity unless you’re Episcopalian or Afrocentric Church of Christ.”
Anyway, back to the WaPo article. Amid the description of Perry’s recent address at Liberty University and the analysis of his remarks by various individuals, a quote grabbed my attention. It’s by Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention: “He talks about his faith in terms that evangelicals will find completely identifiable.”
I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the importance of words and phrases as signifiers in the context of religion. But this is a part of many faith traditions, and an especially essential element of the American Evangelical tradition. In fact, it’s the primary method by which Evangelicals judge the sincerity of a public figure’s faith, if little is known about his private life. Evangelicals look for sincere expressions of salvation (being “saved” or “giving my life to Christ”), a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ following conversion, and “following God’s will” via regular Bible study, prayer, or active participation in a faith community, as one’s spiritual growth progresses.
When a candidate stumbles through the use of these religious signifiers in a way that shows, beyond doubt, that he is unfamiliar with them and uncomfortable using them, the warning lights go off. Of course language isn’t the only thing that Evangelicals take into consideration. Bill Clinton, who was raised a Southern Baptist, “talked the talk” very well on the campaign trail, but his fondness for women other than his wife left an indelibly negative impression in the minds of Evangelicals than no amount of religious talk could remove.
Barack Obama suffers from an impairment where Evangelical religious signifiers are concerned. He was raised in an agnostic household and sporadically attended Unitarian Universalist congregations during his youth, mostly (along with his mother) as a participant in anti-war and social justice activities. As an adult he became involved in a very controversial United Church of Christ congregation. Obama’s use of overly broad religious terminology and symbols in his public speeches no doubt appealed to the highly educated urban whites that make up a significant portion of his party’s power base, but to Evangelicals they conveyed an implicit message that Obama had never really experienced a transformational encounter with Christ in his own personal life — despite his claims to the contrary.
In contrast, at Liberty University Rick Perry candidly discussed a crucial element of Evangelical faith – God’s will:
“He who knows the number of drops in the ocean, he counts the sands in the desert, he knows you by name … He doesn’t require perfect people to execute his perfect plan. God uses broken people to reach a broken world. The mistakes of yesterday say nothing about the possibilities of tomorrow.”
I won’t beat around the bush when it comes to my impression of Perry’s speech — he is obviously working hard to appeal to the large base of Evangelical Republican voters. But wrapped up in that appeal is a sincerity that will be impossible to dismiss. And trying to appeal to a large voter base makes Perry … well, nothing more than an astute politician.
So how will Rick Perry’s faith be derided? For starters, he will be subjected to ridicule centered around the assumption that in his own mind, EVERYTHING he does is “God’s will”. That kind of mockery plays heavily on the assumption that religious individuals are either too stupid or too gullible or too arrogant to objectively use history, reason, or the counsel of others when making decisions. He will also be subjected to the same kind of “If Perry really was a TRUE Christian then he would …” second-guessing that liberals heaped on George W. Bush, especially after the US invasion of Iraq. This will be folded into another attack strategy that seems to be underway, namely that Perry’s record as Texas governor proves that he is callous and lacks compassion for the poor. The WaPo article quotes William Martin, a professor at Rice University: “I looked at his policies, and they didn’t seem to be something that would flow from a heart full of Christian love, so I was thinking he had found religion conveniently. But as best I can tell, it seems to be a long-standing conviction of his.”
Of course it’s still far too early in the campaign to know what affect Perry’s overt Evangelical faith will have on his current dogfight with Mitt Romney (a Mormon, just in case anyone didn’t know) over the front-runner spot as the primary season approaches, or how well it will play against Barack Obama, should Perry eventually win the nomination. But it is very clear at this point that he is not only well-versed, but sincere, in the use of religious language that will appeal greatly to middle America and the South.
And that’s a pretty big deal.