The Perry Bubble: Faith, First and Ten
Here’s the question: is America willing to tolerate another presidential campaign from a conservative evangelical Republican governor from Texas? Apparently, enough people in the Republican Party are, since all signs angle towards the White House at the moment for Rick Perry. For those unfamiliar, the best way to sum him up is to say that he’s the candidate for those who considered George W. Bush too bookish, Dick Cheney too liberal, and Sarah Palin not pretty enough.
In an atmosphere where, as Christopher Hitchens put it so wickedly, all politics is yokel, Perry – having thrust himself upon the national stage over the past few months – would appear to be the candidate of the moment. A handsome, dapper poster-boy for the ADHD-affected conservative movement which emerged following the election of Barack Obama, Perry has amongst other things sought to privatise Medicare and withdraw from the federally-funded Medicaid programme. At the height of the healthcare battle in 2009, he even threatened to have Texas secede from the Union.
His appeal amongst the Tea Party in particular comes not just from his fundamentalist interpretation of the Tenth Amendment, but also from his fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. As if America were Job, Perry has stated that this recession which has thrown millions out of work and out of their homes has a purpose: to bring the country back to biblical principles. Washington D.C. is like ancient Egypt, Perry argues, with the American people as the Israelites, slave to the mighty Pharaoh – as ever for ‘biblical principles’, read free-market economics.
The faultlines of Perry’s brash religiosity and his newly-acquired place in the national imagination have now collided, on account of an event initiated and endorsed by the Governor called “The Response”. In what constitutes a gross violation of the First Amendment – with Perry as government making establishment of the Nazarene faith – Perry is welcome all Americans (well, all Christian Americans) to Reliant Stadium in Houston for a national day of prayer and fasting. The purpose: to “call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles”, at a time when America is “besieged by financial debt and terrorism” and “the youth of America are in grave peril economically, socially, and morally”.
While of course it is commonplace in America’s middle to have overtly religious and indeed overtly Christian governors, it is without precedent for a state executive to organise a massive evangelical service of this nature. The event’s faults are myriad, beginning with its unconstitutionality. Justice Souter, writing for the majority in the case of Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (1994), concluded that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion”. Jewish rabbinical leaders in Texas were correct to petition Perry on that matter, arguing that The Response marks a day of “exclusionary prayer”:
By his actions, Governor Perry is expressing an official message of endorsement of one faith over all others, thereby sending an official message of religious exclusion and preference to all Texans who do not share that faith. We believe our religious freedom is threatened when a government official promotes religion, especially one religion over all others.
That a secessionist has little regard for the Constitution of the United States ought not to be a surprise, but it really speaks to Perry’s moral fortitude when the list of attendees, organisers and speakers is even lightly examined. As one might expect of a religious gathering of extremists and literalists in Texas, it’s a most awful collection of bigots, chauvinists, ahistorians, creationists, flat-Earthers, anti-Semites and homophobes.
Amongst the honorary co-chairs of The Response, there’s James Dobson, who has compared the campaign against women’s health clinics and abortion providers like Planned Parenthood to William Wilberforce’s moves towards the abolition of slavery. Dobson’s response to September 11 was as disproportionate and as shameful as those of other hucksterish preachers like Jerry Falwell. The terror attacks against the people of New York, Dobson said at the time, were the result of God’s displeasure at the “killing of 40 million unborn babies”, adding that “this nation will suffer in many ways for departing from the principles of righteousness”.
Dobson is the founder of the Family Research Council, one of a number of evangelical groups which sprung up during Christianity’s Reagan rebirth in the 1980s. The organisation lobbies against stem cell research, gay rights, abortion and euthanasia, and in favour of abstinence-only sex education and breaking down the barrier between church and state. Its current president Tony Perkins – who has argued that LGBT teens have “a higher propensity to depression or suicide” because of an “internal conflict” driven by their knowledge of homosexuality as an abnormality – is also a co-chair of The Response.
Below the co-chairs are the endorsers. These, in brief, include the faux-historian David Barton, who warned America’s mothers of their children that “unless you’re willing to monitor what’s going on in the classroom, I guarantee you they are getting homosexual indoctrination”. And then there’s the notorious Christian Zionist John Hagee, he who called the Catholic Church the “great whore”, Hurricane Katrina the “curse of God”, and once preached that Hitler was a “hunter” sent by God to “get the Jews back to the Land of Israel”.
I could go on in this vain for a while longer, but the picture is hopefully complete of a Governor who is so absent of judgement and good character that he believes it acceptable to organise an unconstitutional day of prayer with such prejudiced and amoral leaders. More worrying still is the message of the event, namely that Perry seems willing to abdicate his principal executive duty to solve his state’s economic and social woes to a celestial power. At this hour of national economic crisis, the United States does not need a leader who seems at ease which giving up so easily what ought to be most precious to us: free thought, inquiry and self-determination.