Rick Perry and the perils of sectarian religion in 2012

Melina Mara THE WASHINGTON POST Texas Governor and Republican candidate for the GOP Presidential spot, Rick Perry, spoke to a … Continued

Melina Mara


Texas Governor and Republican candidate for the GOP Presidential spot, Rick Perry, spoke to a conservative Christian student body at Liberty University, the largest Christian educational institution in America, in Lynchburg, Virginia, Wednesday, September 14, 2011.

While the U.S. Constitution guarantees that there is no religious test for elected office, there is a long tradition of American political candidates evoking religious language, such as biblical allusions or the nearly obligatory phrase, “God bless America,” in public addresses. These invocations are generally crafted using the language of “civil religion”-a public form of broad-brush religiosity that has been shaped by the particularities of American history, borrowing heavily but remaining distinct from Christianity and Judaism.

But this year the GOP presidential primary has also been infused, most prominently by Texas Governor Rick Perry, with examples of sectarian religiosity that trades in the more provincial coin of white evangelical Christianity. While the advantages of speaking in such specific language in some settings are clear, overplaying a sectarian hand now may hurt candidates’ ability to connect to a wider audience in the general election.

To outside observers, Perry’s course may seem strange for someone who is making the case that he should be the next president of the most influential nation in the world, not only in military might but in technological and scientific innovation. Perry has repeatedly expressed doubts about both evolution (calling it “just a theory”) and climate change. And during a speech at the Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University last week, he spoke little about politics, focusing instead on a personal testimony of his own religious journey and, perhaps surprisingly, his lackluster college grades.

But there may be a method to his touting of these misgivings and

Melina Mara


LYNCHBURG, VA: (L-R) Liberty University students, Mary Broughton, 19, Megan Herndon, 19, and Rachel Good, 19, listen to Texas Governor Rick Perry, speak to the student body during weekly convocation, in Lynchburg, Virginia, Wednesday, September 14, 2011.

mediocrity. By simultaneously confessing that his youthful dream of becoming a veterinarian was dashed by failing grades in organic chemistry, testifying to his doubts about modern science, and witnessing about his personal faith journey, Perry wedded himself to a tried and true archetype in evangelical circles: a man who is fired more by faith and reliance on God than by academic credentials or science.

It’s clear that Perry’s positions on evolution and climate change will resonate with white evangelical Protestants, who are far less apt than the general public to believe in either issue. For example, according to the new PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey just released this week by Public Religion Research Institute, nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) Americans believe humans and other living things have evolved over time. Among white evangelicals, however, more than six-in-ten (63 percent) believe that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and one-third of all white evangelical Protestants believe that humans were created in the last 10,000 years. Although the differences are less pronounced on the issue of climate change, evangelicals are also significantly less likely than the general public to say that the earth is getting warmer and that this is caused by human activity (31 percent vs. 45 percent respectively). White evangelicals are also more likely than the general public to believe that scientists are divided rather than in agreement on these issues.

As I wrote in a “Figuring Faith” column back in July, most Americans say it is important that a presidential candidate have strong religious beliefs. Our new findings show that Perry’s invocation of sectarian religion and scientific skepticism will likely play well with both evangelicals and Tea Party members, who also share these views. But the sectarian rhetoric may spell peril for Perry in the general election, especially among independents, who are generally less religious than the general public and strongly believe both that human beings and other living things have evolved over time (61 percent) and that there is solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer (70 percent).

Looking ahead to 2012, it is not yet clear how much Perry’s invocation of sectarian religion has hurt his chances among Independents in the general election, and whether he will be inclined to see the need to exchange his sectarian song sheet for a civil religion hymnbook. But if he can’t, he may just find himself preaching to the choir.

To read the report, topline results, questionnaire and full methodology, click here.

The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Religion News Service. Results of the survey were based on bilingual (Spanish and English) random digit dial telephone interviews conducted between September 14, 2011 and September 18, 2011, among a random sample of 1,013 adults (301 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.0 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.

Robert P. Jones
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  • lynnlm

    Per the Constitution of the United States of America:
    Article Six: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
    The Second Amendment states: ““Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”.

  • SoyIsMurder

    I think George W. Bush proved that a candidate can successfully court the evangelical vote during the primaries and then de-emphasize religion during the general election. Mr. Perry is even more publicly devout, so he may have a harder time changing the topic.

    “Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them.” – Matthew 6:1

  • sickOFcrap

    Is Rick Perry a re-born Christian or a Texas size Hypocrite ? He uses religion & Gods name for his personal gains so he’s a phoney. He belongs in Texas with his buddies

  • MarkFromOhio

    I don’t want my country to be run by anyone supported by religious nuts. Bad, bad idea.

  • dleoburns

    Today, we see the speed of light being questioned as the ultimate speed. This would seriously call into question many of the accepted principles of physics we have embraced. Many noted scientists have supported the global warming theory, the evolution theory, and the theory that humankind has greatly contributed to global warming. We should respect those opinions, but those are still theories and not absolute facts. We can not prove by the scientific method that God exists, but we can NOT prove that he doesn’t. So, let us be civil in our discourse. We should select a President that we think can solve the problems facing this nation. His views on how we got here are not as important; we are here now and facing these problems. Elect someone to solve the problems!

  • jenellYB

    I find it interesting those “white evangelicals” can argue on the one hand against evolution, and that the Earth is only a few thousannd years old, yet on the other, refute the reality of climate change/global warming with arguements based on claims the Earth is just going through the same kind of global climate cycles that that science proves it has been going through for millions of years.