The XX Factor

Is Rick Perry’s Sleep Apnea the Work of Satan?

Sleep is for the weak

Photograph by Allison Joyce/Getty Images.

Over the weekend we learned of speculation that Rick Perry’s legendary debate performance may be attributed to then-undiagnosed sleep apnea and “painful sensations in his leg and foot.” Jay Root, author of a book on the Texas governor’s campaign, says Perry may have been sleeping badly for decades. It’s strange to think of any condition at all afflicting Rick Perry, who in person projects an alarming vigor, though perhaps Perry’s salubrious-seeming aggression is that of a man so healthy he could go without sleep for years and not even notice.

The sleep news came amid controversy Rick Perry created by claiming, on a conference call, that Satan “runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you.” He went on to denigrate the separation of church and state in a way that implied the separation was the work of Satan himself. During a public interview with the Texas Tribune, Perry was then asked to clarify. Reports the Houston Chronicle:

Gov. Rick Perry talked about Satan, the state budget and his determination to freeze college tuition rates for four years during an appearance Friday evening ….

“Let me go on the record as saying, I believe in Satan,” Perry said when Smith asked him about his recent comments that Satan is running across the world pushing untruths ….

“If you don’t want to think there is forces of darkness and spirits and spiritual warfare, that’s your call,” Perry said.

Why is this disturbing? “Forces of darkness” strikes me as a surprising thing for a sitting governor to say, but it’s not clear why talk of Satan should be notable in a country that demands all its candidates be “people of faith.” One would expect that any Christian candidate who professes belief in good spirits would also profess an attendant faith in bad ones. And yet the ease with which Perry slips into a language rarely heard in New England marks him as something unfamiliar to that world. There’s a clarity in the phrase “spiritual warfare” that you won’t get going to Catholic school in Connecticut.

Then again, it seems like the work of the devil ought to be anything but clear. Saint Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle—which I’m told, unrelatedly, was the inspiration for a more recent book called Eat, Pray, Love—involves a gorgeously complicated attempt by the author to extricate those experiences that are heaven sent from those that are sent by Satan in order to simulate heavenly experiences and deceive her into thinking she has communed with God.

Much fun can thus be had disentangling God’s actual plan from what Satan would like you to believe is his plan. Is the separation of church and state the work of the devil, or is that merely what the devil would like Rick Perry to believe? Perhaps God orchestrated this interpretation of the First Amendment and Satan has enlisted Rick Perry to discredit the idea. And so on.

Rick Perry, of course, is not the Rick we’d most expect to claim special knowledge of Satan’s designs. Here’s Rick Santorum chatting about Satan’s plan in 2008:

The Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country—the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age. There is no one else to go after other than the United States …

If I were the Father of Lies and looking for a good, decent country to strike down, I’m certain I’d pick Canada. But that’s the great thing about Satan—he’s a scam artist, a trickster. You can only guess at his long-term strategy. What’s ultimately disturbing about Perry is not his belief in darkness personified but the belief that he knows precisely on which side of any question Satan sits. To characterize a policy as satanic is not to make oneself open to empirical evidence about the efficacy of that policy. Which is not to say that sleepless, pain-ridden Rick Perry is unusual in his refusal to acknowledge moral ambiguity. He has just got a useful shorthand for the kind of unlearned certainty that makes campaign season so rhetorically vibrant and intellectually vacuous.