The Christian day of prayer and fasting Texas Governor Rick Perry organized this past weekend may have been apolitical in nature, but there’s little doubt it served notice on religious conservatives he intends to be their candidate for president. Perry was criticized in some quarters for inserting an overtly religious and specifically Christian theme into the national debate, but he doesn’t appear worried about any negative feedback. The Response, as the event was named, sounded all the right notes for a candidate who hopes to win GOP primaries. Rather than merely appeal to the large and influential evangelical voting bloc, Perry demonstrated he was one of them.
Those who have worried about whether Perry’s candidacy would suffer because of the inevitable comparisons to his predecessor in Austin may have been overstating the case. Sounding more like a pastor than a politician, the governor’s speech at the event held at a Houston pro football stadium made Bush’s professions of faith seem tame by comparison. If the event held at a Houston pro football stadium raises the question of whether Americans would be comfortable with a candidate who stands up (as many in the audience appeared to think) for the Kingdom of God in a way no major party nominee has done since William Jennings Bryan (an admittedly bad precedent as he was both a Democrat and a three-time presidential loser), it appears Perry is not afraid of the answer.
While the rhetoric of faith has always been a part of American culture, the ground Perry staked out in The Response takes the pro forma “and may God bless America” lines even non-religious candidates employ to a different level. Perry’s willingness to invest the prestige of his office in a gathering solely devoted to religious themes was unusual even in Texas. Though the GOP race, which Perry has yet to formally enter, is one where virtually all of the contenders can claim a connection with Christian conservatives, the governor has clearly raised the religious stakes.
Those who wonder whether Perry is overplaying his hand are missing the point. A fair look at his life and career shows that Perry is not so much seeking to exploit the rising tide of conservative Christianity in much of the country, as he is the product of it. Though liberal elites may mock the tens of thousands who turned out to join Perry in prayer, their public expression of faith probably seems perfectly normal to many Americans and not just those who are right wing GOP activists. The idea of a “naked public square” in which faith is conspicuously absent has little support among most Americans.
While the tone of the event may cause discomfort for those who believe in a high and impenetrable wall of separation between church and state, so long as Perry doesn’t stray into any theocratic proclamations, he isn’t likely to be damaged by this stance.
Perry’s performance on the campaign trail once he actually gets into the race will have more impact on his chances of winning than one sermon in Houston. And being the governor of a state with a booming economy may be a stronger argument for his election than his religion. But given the enormous influence religious conservatives have on GOP caucuses and primaries, the governor’s willingness to wear his faith on his sleeve in this manner could help far more than hurt him.