Advancing a Free Society

Republicans and the Politics of Divine Intervention

Monday, August 8, 2011

Aside from such pittances as America’s credit rating being lowered, new doubts about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and what surprises Monday’s markets would bring, the weekend’s other news came out of the Lone Star State, where Texas Gov. Rick Perry hosted “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis”.

Billed as a “non-denominational, apolitical Christian prayer meeting”, the 7-hour gathering at Houston’s Reliant Stadium bemoaned a “historic crisis” of “financial debt, terrorism and a multitude of natural disasters . . .”

Not to mention its pre-stated belief that the nation stands at a “crossroads” – a word one often hears from candidate in a national election . . . with Perry expected to enter the Republican presidential field by month’s end.

The funny thing about Perry’s little get-together, which was anything but “little” as the crowd of 30,000 was nearly four times larger than expected: the media’s newfound concern over religion and political aspirations intersecting in Republican national politics.

Really? Religion hasn’t played a role in the choice to take on President Obama in 2012?

Perhaps the press should pick up a copy of the latest issue of New York Magazine, whose cover features Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman under the headline: “The Cain and Abel of American Politics”. Hint: the two GOP hopefuls aren’t front and center because they’re former governors, fabulously wealthy, or have family overlap. It’s about their Mormon affiliation.

Or, try June’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire – held at an institution run by Catholic Benedictines (Saint Anselm College) and featuring three evangelical Baptists (Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty), two Catholics (New Gingrich and Rick Santorum), one evangelical Lutheran (Michele Bachmann) and the aforementioned Mormon (Romney) all asked to define the proper separation of church and state.

You might recall the last Republican to occupy the Oval Office – George W. Bush, who declared in a presidential debate that the philosopher he most identified with was Jesus (and reportedlytold Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention: “I believe that God wants me to be president.”)

(btw, in the early phase of his presidency, Obama invoked Jesus more frequently than Dubya . . .)

We can travel further in the GOP way-back machine – to December 1999 and that month’s Republican debate in Iowa, during which five of the six candidates in the GOP field invoked the name of God or Christ, or both – and made more than 20 direct references to the father and son of the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith.

The sixth candidate? John McCain, an Episcopalian who was busy running radio ads in South Carolina stressing his Christian faith.

And, of course, there’s the twice-elected Republican President who mixed faith and government. You’re thinking Ronald Reagan, right? The surprise answer: Dwight Eisenhower, who composed his own prayer that he read at first inaugural, and encouraged cabin secretaries to open cabin meetings with a prayer.

The point is: Perry’s stadium-sized “tent revival” may offend some because of its Texas flash and its political overtones. And it raises questions as to whether a Perry presidency might include prayer as a policy lever (in April, he issued a state proclamation calling on his fellow Texans to pray for an end to the Lone Star drought).

However, turning to a higher authority is not exactly something new in Republican presidential politics (or Democratic politics, for that matter, if one considers time spent in black churches every four years). And, because it’s not exactly breaking new ground, Perry’s critics might want to go easy on the theocracy talk.

In the meantime, if Perry does jump into the race and choose to make his devoutness a cornerstone of a presidential run? Voters – not the media – will have the final say.

As for that electorate: according to polls, it’s three-fourths Christian, with five in six Americans saying they believe in a higher being. Moreover, a majority of the public (56%) says it’s very or somewhat important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs (maybe one of the reasons why Obama gave an unusually personal speech about his faith this past February). That number rises among white evangelicals (73%), Tea Partiers (72%) and Republicans (71%).

So perhaps it’s no so risky for Perry to proclaim his faith in a "loving God" and call for a divine hand to help "those who suffer", which he did at Reliant Stadium. Or, to tie God to voters’ concerns: "Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government."

It’s a far cry from suggesting that God plays favorites in elections.

Time will tell if, for a Texas governor trying to make roads into Iowa and beyond, it’s divine inspiration.

(photo credit: Ed Schipul)