I happened to spend several weeks in Texas earlier this year, while the Lone Star State lay under the pitiless glare of an unremitting drought. After a protracted arid interval, the state’s immodest governor, Rick Perry, announced that he was using the authority vested in him to call for prayers for rain. These incantations and beseechments, carrying the imprimatur of government, were duly offered to the heavens. The heavens responded by remaining, along with the parched lands below, obstinately dry.
Perry did not, of course, suffer politically for making an idiot of himself in this way. Not even the true believers really expect that prayers for precipitation will be answered, or believe that a failed rainmaker is a false prophet. And, had Perry’s entreaties actually been followed by a moistening of the clouds and the coming of the healing showers, it is unlikely that anybody would really have claimed a connection between post hoc and propter hoc. No, religion in politics is more like an insurance policy than a true act of faith. Professing allegiance to it seldom does you any harm, at least in Republican primary season, and can do you some good. It’s a question of prudence.
Or is it? Since his faintly absurd excursion into inspirational meteorology back in the spring, Perry has begun to show signs of starting a religious auction on the right, with himself as the highest bidder. His “ Day of Prayer and Fasting” on Aug. 6 took the form of a rally of the faithful assembled under the big tent of “The Response.” It featured traditional groups like the American Family Association and also less familiar and even more consecrated outfits such as the “ New Apostolic Reformation.” More interestingly, it was the near-equivalent, in time and space, of Perry’s announcement of his intention to run for the presidency. We are therefore justified in saying that religious rhetoric is not merely decorative or incidental to his campaign.
As usual, though, there is some built-in wiggle room. In 2006 he said that he believed the Bible to be inerrant. He also said that those who did not accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior would be going to hell. Pressed a little on the sheer wickedness and stupidity of that last claim, the governor did allow that he himself wasn’t omniscient enough to be sure on such doctrinal matters. He tells us that he is a “firm believer” in the “intelligent design” formulation that is creationism’s latest rhetorical disguise, adding that the “design” could be biblical or could have involved something more complex, but is attributable to the same divine author in any event. Whether he chooses to avail himself of the wiggles or not, Perry can be reasonably sure that the voting base of the theocratic right has picked up his intended message.
In this same auction, his chief conservative rivals are somewhat disabled. Mitt Romney is in no position, and shows no inclination, to campaign on matters spiritual. His own bizarre religion is regarded as just that by much of the mainstream and as heretical at best by the evangelical Christian rank and file. Advantage Perry—at least among Republican voters. Rep. Michele Bachmann, if she is still seriously considered as being in the race, can also only lose from the comparison: Her religious positions are so weird, and so weirdly held, that they have already made her look like a crackpot. (Or revealed her as such: the distinction is a negligible one.) And Perry, no matter what his other faults, does not look like a fringe or crackpot character. He has enough chops as a vote-getter and—whatever you think of the Texas “economic miracle”—as a “job-creator,” that even his decision to outbid all comers on questions of the sacred and the profane can be made to seem like the action of a rational calculator.
And this is what one always wants to know about candidates who flourish the Good Book or who presume to talk about hell and damnation. Do they, themselves, in their heart of hearts, truly believe it? Is there any evidence, if it comes to that, that Perry has ever studied the theory of evolution for long enough to be able to state roughly what it says? And how much textual and hermeneutic work did he do before deciding on the “inerrancy” of Jewish and Christian scripture? It should, of course, be the sincere believers and devout faithful who ask him, and themselves, these questions. But somehow, it never is. The risks of hypocrisy seem forever invisible to the politicized Christians, for whom sufficient proof of faith consists of loud and unambiguous declarations. I am always surprised that more is not heard from sincere religious believers, who have the most to lose if faith becomes a matter of poll-time dogma and lung power.
My bet would be that, just as Perry probably wouldn’t have tried to take credit if there had been rain after his ostentatious intercessions, so he doesn’t lose much actual sleep over doctrinal matters, personal saviorhood, and the rest of it. As with his crass saber-rattling about Texan secessiona season or so back, or his more recent semitough talk about apparently riding Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke out of town on a rail, it is probably largely boilerplate, and mainly for the rubes.
Which leads one to slightly rephrase the question above: Is it better to have a candidate who actually believes in biblical inerrancy and the extreme youthfulness and recency of the Grand Canyon, or a candidate who half-affects such convictions in the hope of political gain? Either would be depressing. A mixture of the two—not excluded in Perry’s case—would lower the tone nicely.