Gov. Rick Perry unofficially kicked off his 2012 presidential campaign (?) yesterday 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 13-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 yesterday’s gathering was that the piety was the policy. This is how the governor of Texas chose to introduce himself to the American people; 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 yesterday.
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 that it aligns with his or her favorite policy prescription, and then moves on to a totally new subject, like ethanol subsidies or what not.
This was the norm throughout the 2008 election. Candidates Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Romney, Huckabee, McCain, and so forth would intone 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.
What Gov. Perry did yesterday 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 reeled off immense chunks of scripture—without any interpretation whatsoever, as if the verses were self-explanatory.
Catholics, Jews, and many forms of Protestants, of course, simply can’t read their Bibles “without comment.” This leads me to note 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 when baiting Mitt Romney.
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 yesterday’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, albeit unpolished, televangelist.
If he intends on using the religion card effectively beyond the Iowa and South Carolina caucuses and primaries, Gov. Perry will have to come up with something more inclusive than this. In short, he will need to crack the code that George W. Bush deciphered in his presidential runs.