On Aug. 6, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will lead a prayer rally in Houston despite criticism that his event violates the separation of church and state. Though Perry said recently that he felt “called” to run for the presidency, he also told a Christian radio show that the rally will not be political. “This is simply people calling out to God,” he said.
The governor is the latest would-be presidential candidate injecting religion into Republican politics while disavowing political intent. But once they pocket the votes of fellow Christians, do these politicos keep the faith?
The track record is spotty. George W. Bush, who claimed in a 1999 Republican primary debate that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher, promised $8 billion to churches and other religious groups. Once elected, he created an executive office for faith-based initiatives; the first grants of $15 million went to small churches and other religious groups that offered job training and unemployment services in the economic slump after the 9/11 attacks.
But of the promised $8 billion, only about $500 million was delivered. The rest was lost to the Bush tax cuts. Moreover, David Kuo, a special assistant to Bush for faith-based initiatives, claimed that supposedly nonpartisan conferences convened in 2002 to help religious charities apply for federal funds took place in districts where Republican incumbents were in trouble. “It had to look like the idea came from members of Congress, just another way incumbent representatives were serving their communities,” Kuo wrote later. “This approach inoculated us against accusations that we were using religion and religious leaders to promote specific candidates.”
This dynamic — candidate courts evangelical voters, then strays from the path after Election Day — is not new. Billy Graham, the face of evangelical Christianity since his first crusades to find converts in the late 1940s, struck up an alliance with Richard Nixon when Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Though not an evangelical, Nixon seemed sympathetic to Graham’s vision and made evangelicals central to his electoral strategy after the upheavals of the 1960s.
Graham shilled for Nixon during the 1968 campaign but consistently denied that he played a political role, even after he allowed Nixon to address a crusade in 1970. Deflecting criticism of the choice months later, Graham offered an explanation that betrayed either naivete or cynicism: “I wouldn’t think that you’d call the president political.”
Graham would have regrets after the Watergate scandal. He had thought that aligning himself with power would advance the evangelical cause. With the release of a partial transcript of the White House tapes, however, Graham was crushed. He said later that when he saw the real Nixon — profane, vindictive and petty — he “felt like a sheep led to the slaughter.” No presidential candidate ever addressed a Graham crusade again. Rehabilitating his image as a nonpartisan adviser to commanders in chief, Graham offered prayers at the inaugurations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it,” he said in 1981.
But evangelicals continued in politics without Graham. By the time Ronald Reagan rose to prominence, they had become a permanent part of the GOP base. When Reagan appeared before 15,000 religious leaders at the Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing in 1980, he told the crowd: “I know you can’t endorse me . . . but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority, called Reagan’s election “the greatest day for the cause of conservatism and morality in my adult life.” Reagan had counted on the televangelist to help him defeat former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in the South. An alliance like the one between Graham and Nixon seemed mutually beneficial.
Yet Reagan did little for evangelicals once he reached the Oval Office. He gave them few key appointments in his administration, and in 1981, he met with Falwell and Paul Weyrich, founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and asked that they put their agenda on the back burner while he negotiated with Congress over taxes. They agreed — and later regretted it. Though Reagan put pro-life justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and made like-minded William Rehnquist chief justice, he also nominated Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, co-authors of the 1992 opinion Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld Roe v Wade. Evangelicals wanted a constitutional amendment banning abortion, but Reagan proved unwilling to push for legislation doomed to die in a Democratic Congress. “The religious right was sweet-talked,” Weyrich complained at the end of Reagan’s first term.
That evangelicals have been so disappointed with the presidents they elect suggests that politics might not be the best avenue to achieve their aims. Politics demands compromise and conciliation that counter evangelical calls for purity. When Michele Bachmann insists that “social conservatism is fiscal conservatism,” does she understand that conservative Christians want to do more than cut taxes? When Tim Pawlenty names his “political heroes” — “I love Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ” — does he know that making war wasn’t part of the carpenter from Judea’s program?
If Perry thinks politicking is more important than proselytizing, conservative Christians will not fare well in 2012, even if their candidates win. Perhaps they should turn to Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents.” After all, mixing religion and politics is a slithery business.
David Sehat is an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University and the author of “The Myth of American Religious Freedom.”