Assessing Texas Governor Rick Perry as a 2012 Presidential Candidate: Part One in an Ongoing Series on the Likely Candidates and Their Views on Religion
This column is the first in a series that I will be writing on the 2012 Presidential candidates and their views on religion. Why? Because in a time of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, the triumphalism of some American religions intent on using national politics to advance their religious beliefs, and America’s need for a transformative, moral leader, the candidates’ religious views matter. Not only are their religious viewpoints relevant now (in part because the Republican Party has made them into a near-litmus test), but their views on the relationship between church and state are critical as the United States continues to evolve into an extraordinarily diverse religious canvas. I will be covering all Republican candidates, President Barack Obama, and any Democratic hopeful who makes a bid in the wake of the President’s struggles.
Currently, it appears virtually certain that this Saturday, August 13, Texas Governor Rick Perry will be announcing his candidacy for the 2012 presidential race. Given the poll numbers that Gov. Perry has garnered even before making his candidacy official, he will be a candidate whom we must take quite seriously—at least until the country beyond Texas learns more about his positions, achievements, and shortcomings. In this column, I’ll consider Perry’s views on religion and the relationship between church and state.
The Secular Indices of Perry’s Abilities
Gov. Perry was touted by the Wall Street Journal as a shining light in our time of economic darkness, based on the claim that he is responsible for a dramatic increase in jobs in Texas and for the advent of tort reform in that state. (“Tort reform,” as readers may be aware, is the current euphemism for laws meant to keep tort victims out of court or to minimize the verdicts they may receive.). Others have pointed out, however, that the increase in jobs with which Perry has been credited involves many low-paying jobs. That is not necessarily a criticism—any increase in jobs at this point is a positive increase, but Americans need the most accurate facts about the economic strengths of each candidate. Others have said that any governor would have seen the influx of jobs in Texas, and, therefore, one should not assume that Perry is actually responsible for his state’s improved jobs picture.
Perry’s record has some troubling deficiencies, as well. To begin, his academic record at Texas A&M is not distinguished, to put it mildly. It is dominated by C’s and D’s, with some B’s, and one lonely A. If grades have any correlation with problem-solving capacity, and surely they must, Perry is not equipped to be the leader of the free world.
Perhaps, though, Perry just did not do the work that was required. But that is even more troubling, on reflection. We’ve already had as president a former Texas governor who was routinely charged with not putting in the time that was truly needed to run the United States successfully, and who shared a history of unimpressive academic achievement.
To be fair, however, higher education at some very distinguished institutions has not been enough to keep President Obama from being severely challenged by one world problem after another, so I’m sure that there are those who will defend Perry on the ground that education does not really matter. They would, however, be wrong. The globalization of world markets has led to a mind-boggling, complicated American economic picture. The break-the-mold war being waged by Islamic jihadists also poses heretofore unimagined challenges. We need really smart, visionary, courageous leaders.
God or State? Perry’s Answer: God
Let me set aside these secular indices of how Perry might fare as president, though, because Perry has courted a religious image throughout his political career in Texas. He has delivered a cornucopia of religious messages while in the public spotlight. Thus, we ought surely to ask where he stands on certain touchstone religio-political issues.
As one would expect from a governor of Texas, Perry is against same-sex marriage—and seems, actually, to be against gay persons themselves—and he is dead set against abortion. Bizarrely, he even claims to be able to trace the pro-life view on the abortion issue right back to the founding generation, stating the following:
Our founding fathers affirmed this right to life in the Declaration of Independence, along with the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the gift of life is not granted by any government or any court of law. As our forefathers correctly understood, life is nothing less than a gift from God and defending that right is a calling worthy of our best. That’s why, as long as I am Texas governor, I will oppose any law that compromises these essential protections.
Unfortunately, Perry’s respect for historical accuracy is rivaled by his respect for scientific accuracy. He says that he supports “intelligent design,” “as a matter of faith and intellect.” Intelligent design, of course, is actually anti-intellectual and anti-science. Thus, the fact that Perry characterizes it as a matter of “intellect” tells us that he will be a formidable candidate, because it shows that he can say, with a straight face, phrases that mean exactly the opposite of what is true.
Belief in intelligent design can be a matter of pure faith (faith that overlooks facts and ignores large swathes of science). But the most cursory scientific inquiry shows that such a belief is not a matter of intellect.
Perry’s Apparent View: Religion Ought to Drive Politics
Most recently, Perry was an active promoter and enthusiastic participant in a religious gathering of over 30,000 people in Houston, which he helped organize for the purpose of praying for the United States’ economy. One participant explained the gathering’s purpose as follows: “The religion is the politics. These worshippers understand that if they can bring ‘the kingdom of God’ to Earth, economic problems, even macroeconomic problems, will sort themselves out.”
Really, it is hard to understand how Gov. Perry has time to rule Texas given how much time he devotes to praying to God to solve political and social problems:
“Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like that described in the book of Joel,” Gov. Perry said. “I urge all Americans of faith to pray on that day for the healing of our country, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of enduring values as our guiding force.”
Many of us are praying about the economic downturn, but at the same time hoping that our elected representatives have something more concrete to provide than a call to prayer. Prayer cannot be a substitute for the backbreaking work and intellectual puzzling it is going to take to put this country’s ship aright.
Does Gov. Perry Truly Believe in Small Government, or Not?
It is absolutely clear that Gov. Perry does not believe in the separation of church and state. Indeed, he may not even believe in the existence of a state separate from the church. At the 2011 Texas Prayer Breakfast, Perry declared, “As always, this is a joyous event bringing together elected officials who share the knowledge that true power does not originate on Earth, it emanates from God.”
Consider also Perry’s speech to the Texas Eagle Forum: “We are in a struggle for the heart and soul of our nation,” Perry said. “That’s the question: Who do you worship? Do you believe in the primacy of unrestrained federal government? Or do you worship the God of the universe, placing our trust in him?”
For a president, and even a governor, I would have thought we were in “a struggle” for a stable economy and a pathway to peace in the Middle East and on the borders. Perry is fighting for the “soul” of the nation. He wants to know, “Who do you worship?” Sounds to me like he is running to be the Evangelical in Chief, not the leader of a country where the Constitution plainly forbids the President, Congress, and the Courts from preferring one religion over another. There is no doubt about the sincerity of his religious beliefs, or about their role in his world view, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt whether he can grasp the President’s appropriate role vis-à-vis religion. Americans need solutions, not religious services, from a presidential candidate.
Perry’s Abandonment of Federalism, or States’ Rights
From the foregoing quotations, a conservative might conclude that at least Gov. Perry believes in constraining the federal government. But, in fact, there is evidence that he is comfortable with overweening federal power when it serves his own ends and, in particular, the ends of religious entities to which he is loyal.
There are certain arenas that have traditionally belonged to the states and to local governments. One is marriage, and another is medical care. His Christian-right-pleasing positions, opposing gay marriage and abortion, have played out almost exclusively at the state level. That has permitted a 50-state experiment to go forward, and permitted states to learn what works best and why. Perry recently avowed that he would take those issues from the states and hand them over to the federal government through federal constitutional amendments.
Perry is also in bed with the Christian Legal Society (CLS), which has been one of the most vocal proponents for federal legislation to favor religious claimants over local and state laws, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The CLS has been particularly motivated by a desire to ensure that landlords do not have to rent to individuals and couples who do not conform to their religious worldview. Therefore, the CLS has backed federal legislation that severely hampers the effectiveness of local and state laws, for the benefit of religious actors.
The CLS also has invested heavily in obtaining state aid to further their religious ends. CLS recently took a case all the way up to the United States Supreme Court arguing that they had a constitutional right to receive state funds for their organization, which operated on a law school campus. The Court rejected their argument in CLS v. Martinez, but it is indicative of the direction in which the religious right has taken elements of the Republican Party—far from states’ rights and fiscal integrity, which used to be the Party’s core tenets. There is no doubt that CLS will have the ear of a President Perry.
Perry is just one of a series of Texas state officials who have pandered to the religious to further their political ends. When the little town of Boerne, Texas, found itself a defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Archbishop of San Antonio, who invoked the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to attack the town’s historic-preservation district, Texas chose the federal law against the city.
The case was a prime opportunity for conservatives to fulfill their dream of making Congress more accountable to the states and the people. It posed the question whether the federal government could undermine every local, state, and federal law to benefit religious actors. A number of state attorneys general stood up for their state and local laws, but not Attorney General Dan Morales of Texas, who filed an amicus brief against the city of Boerne, despite the fact that it was located in his own state. Even though it meant going against a small town in the very state he governed, Morales insisted upon defending the ability of Congress to effectively override state and local laws.
I represented Boerne in that case, along with two excellent San Antonio attorneys, Lowell Denton and Susan Rocha. We sought the Attorney General’s support for the town of Boerne at the Supreme Court—and rightly so. We all thought that a state attorney general would surely be charged with defending the laws of the state against a federal takeover. We also assumed that the Texas Attorney General would be particularly offended by a federal law setting aside so many of Texas’s laws. We got a different answer than we expected, though, when Morales filed his amicus brief at the High Court, in support of the Archbishop.
Here is how the Texas attorney general articulated the interest of Texas in the Boerne case: “The State of Texas files this amicus curiae brief on behalf of the state and its citizens in order to protect the Free Exercise rights of its citizens under the First Amendment (as incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The brief then proceeded to reject virtually every argument for federalism, or states’ rights, and to embrace the notion that federalism actually exists mainly to serve religious actors. Fortunately, the Supreme Court soundly rejected these baseless contentions in Boerne v. Flores.
On a similar note, Texas is currently taking the side of religious organizations against employees claiming discrimination in Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, which is now pending at the Supreme Court.
There was no need for state attorneys general to take any position at all in Hosanna Tabor, which is really a First Amendment case, but several—including Texas’s—apparently thought it necessary to choose the religious organizations’ side in the fight, even though their interpretation is likely to water down their own states’ anti-discrimination laws.
These pro-religion public positions, taken at the expense of state and local laws, should serve as a warning to all voters that the Texas environment produces Texas politicians who are often willing to sacrifice constitutional principles—particularly, the principles of federalism and small government—to religious ends.
Morales campaigned for the Democratic gubernatorial nod in 2002 but lost to Tony Sanchez. Morales then lent his support to Sanchez’s opponent, Rick Perry, who won. Morales later was convicted and incarcerated for mail fraud and tax evasion in the context of the big tobacco settlements. It would be interesting to learn whether Morales pursued Perry, or the reverse.
Whatever economic bona fides Perry brings to the table, it would be a matter of supreme self-deception for any voter to believe that Perry truly stands for smaller, more accountable government. His record and his own public statements say otherwise. To our benefit, his priorities are crystal clear.
The truth is that Gov. Perry’s first priority is his God. Not yours. His.