Governor Rick Perry unofficially kicked off his 2012 presidential campaign Saturday by staging a revival meeting in Houston, Texas. In terms of Faith and Values campaigning it was significant and unusual in a variety of ways:
Piety over Policy-In his thirteen-minute address Perry reversed the traditional script. Typically, those who are running for high office tinge their lengthy discussions of policy with a patina of piety. Here, everything was upside down. Perry simply preached with no substantive reference to any political plan or program.
It seems to make sense, but the more you think of it, the odder it becomes. Why not use these precious minutes of unprecedented national media focus to draw attention to his platform? Why not exploit the occasion to get a leg up on Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann?
There is no obvious answer to this. I would suggest, however, that what was peculiar and disturbing about Saturday’s gathering was that the piety was the policy. This is how the Governor of Texas chose to introduce himself to the American people, and I doubt it was a coincidence.
Extended biblical citation--Having written a book about how presidential candidates cite Scripture on the campaign trail, permit me to note that Perry broke a little new ground Saturday.
Typically, when aspirants for high office invoke the Bible they employ a method I refer to as the “cite and run.” Usually the politician mentions one verse, implies it aligns with his or her favorite policy prescription, and then moves on to a totally new subject like Ethanol subsidies.
This was the norm throughout the 2008 election. Candidates Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Romney, Huckabee, McCain, and so forth would cite a line from the Good Book, and then get on with it. Even George W. Bush in his 2000-2008 run would rarely go beyond two-verse recitation.
Yet what Governor Perry did Saturday is unusual in the history of presidential campaigns, at least recent ones. He engaged in extended citation of passages from Joel, Isaiah and Ephesians. He would reel off immense chunks of Scripture--without any interpretation whatsoever, as if the verses were self-explanatory.
Catholics, Jews and many other forms of Protestants, of course, simply can’t read their Bibles “without comment” and this leads me to one of Perry’s missteps.
It’s the Ecumenicism, Mr. Perry: Faith and Values campaigning works in direct proportion to its degree of banal generality. As soon as it raises questions of difference, the faith advantage metastasizes into an immense liability.
Think of what Jeremiah Wright did for Obama, what Pastors Hagee and Parsley did for John McCain, or how Mike Huckabee slighted Mormons. Again and again, we see that candidates get derailed when their religious messaging is anything but “faith-positive” and, yes, blandly even disingenuously, ecumenical.
To a Catholic or a Jew or even a Mainline Protestant watching Saturday’s event the whole thing must have appeared entirely unfamiliar. It was an evangelical Protestant gathering. Period. Perry’s demeanor and style were that of a subdued, unpolished televangelist.
If he intends on using the religion card effectively beyond the Iowa and South Carolina caucuses and primaries Governor Perry will have to come up with something more inclusive than this.