Rick Perry’s Christian America

~by Tom Van Dyke

rick perry

Well, the problem isn’t perhaps-GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry attending a semi-political prayer meeting. This stuff happens all the time. [His playing Pontifex Maximus for it and the potential political fallout from it, all in due time.]

Of course, it was overtly and annoyingly Christian to some and many people, Perry invoking Jesus Christ and Christian theology and all that, but it’s not without precedent. In fact, President Obama did so just this year, asserting the Resurrection as historical fact [!]:

“I wanted to host this [event] for a simple reason,” announced the president to a White House stocked with some of America’s most prominent Christian leaders. “During this season, we are reminded that there is something about the resurrection. Something about the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ that puts everything else in perspective.”

Well. Not exactly what a Jew or Muslim was dying to hear. Everybody knows that during the Founding era, presidents didn’t talk like that. They preferred more generic terms for America’s "civil religion," which might be safely described as "Providential monotheism." There’s one God, not many gods, and He looks down on us and occasionally sees His way fit to gently guide history for the better:

"[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect…In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States."

George Washington, First Inaugural Address

To the Founders, God was a reality, not a theory. When Washington presumed to speak for "my fellow-citizens at large," this raised no controversy. But America’s Deity to which he gave thanks was "the Almighty Being," "the Great Author," with an "Invisible Hand." Not Jesus the Christ, with all the doctrine that accompanies him.

And so, the irony is that here in the 21st century, while religion, religious conscience and Christianity itself are punked in various courtrooms as being inherently irrational, presidents and maybe-presidents are becoming more explicit in articulating Christian doctrine than the Founders ever found proper, even back when there were few Jews and even fewer Muslims thereabouts. [Let alone out-of-the-closet atheists—Ben Franklin said you could live to an old age in America without ever meeting one!]

For every push, there is a shove: you play Wack-a-Mole on God, he pops up somewhere else. Back when God was considered a reality, the details were largely left open. But now that God is legally only one theory among many—and an inherently irrational one at that, reduced to a "ceremonial deism" that not one Founder accepted, not even Tom Paine—it’s really no surprise that a Rick Perry or even a citizen-of-the-world like Barack Obama feels obliged to show his cards to an electorate that wonders what the hell is going on.

NB: None of this is to say God even exists. We are all modern gentlemen, after all, and gentlemen do not discuss such things. We are speaking of history, American history, of man and his questions and answers about God, not God Himself.

Although I myself have found that the name of God is on the lips of every drunk. But I admit haven’t met them all yet. And Tom Paine, a true deist who rejected the Christian scriptures, even went to Revolutionary France and lectured against atheism. You could look it up. Even Tom Paine’s deism wasn’t just "ceremonial," and neither is America’s.

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51 thoughts on “Rick Perry’s Christian America

  1. It’s perfectly cool to have politicians pander to hoi polloi however hoi polloi wishes to be pandered to.

    One might think that hoi polloi would eventually tire of having politicians lie to their faces.

    Unless, of course, Rick Perry is different.


      • Politico: Perry’s in.

        Rick Perry intends to use a speech in South Carolina on Saturday to make clear that he’s running for president, POLITICO has learned.

        According to two sources familiar with the plan, the Texas governor will remove any doubt about his White House intentions during his appearance at a RedState conference in Charleston.

        It’s uncertain whether Saturday will mark a formal declaration, but Perry’s decision to disclose his intentions the same day as the Ames straw poll — and then hours later make his first trip to New Hampshire — will send shock waves through the race and upend whatever results come out of the straw poll.

        Immediately following his speech in South Carolina, Perry will make his New Hampshire debut at a house party at the Portsmouth-area home of a state representative, Pamela Tucker, the Union Leader reported Monday.


  2. “For every push, there is a shove: you play Wack-a-Mole on God, he pops up somewhere else.”

    Would it be safe to say, then, that God is a place-holder until something “better” comes along?

    Year 10,000 BC:
    Why do seasons exist? God.
    Why can’t we eat pork? God.
    Why do we die? God.

    Year 0:
    Why do seasons exist? Because the earth is round and it tilts in relation to the sun, which provides it with heat-energy.
    Why can’t we eat pork? God.
    Why do we die? God.

    Year 2011:
    Why do seasons exist? Because the earth is round and it tilts in relation to the sun, which provides it with heat-energy.
    Why can’t we eat pork? Because pigs are dirty and pork has parasites which eat your brain unless properly cooked.
    Why do we die? Because if we didn’t die we wouldn’t exist in the first place.


  3. TVD-

    1st – Great post. You should do more.

    2nd – I am curious to find out why you think that modern pols do feel “obliged to show [their] cards.” Is it that they see so many flavors of God in the marketplace (for lack of a better word), and want to make sure we know their exact preference? Is it a cynical manipulation – which is to say, a belief that the faithful might not vote for you if you don’t fess up to bona fides? Or is it something else entirely?

    I don’t know what goes through Obama’s head, and if he says he believes these things I will take him at his word. But I confess when I read about his prayer meeting, or Perry’s “playing Pontifex Maximus,” I have my suspicions that they are attempting to trade the currency of professed faith for political power.

    3rd – To what extent do you think 9/11 plays on these kind of public displays and events? When I was growing up the Soviets were the enemy that was clearest in our windshields, and pols went out of their way to declare how they were far less like a Soviet than their opponent. I wonder how much of the vocalizing of Christianity is a similar thing towards the perceived Muslim enemy.


    • Block reference:

      Gallup has been asking people about whether they would vote for atheists for president for quite some time. Here are the numbers who have said “no” over the years:

      February 1999: 48%
      August 1987: 48%
      April 1983: 51%
      July 1978: 53%
      December 1959: 74%
      September 1958: 77%
      August 1958: 75%

      End block quote.

      When half of the country demands you be a theist of some sort in order to get consideration… well, I’ll not be cynical (heh) but if I was working as an adviser to a Presidential candidate I’d recommend that (s)he mention God occasionally. Plus, in BHO’s case, the whole, “No, I’m not a Muslim… not that there’s anything *wrong* with that” thing.

      I also think Obama is an actual believer, as well.


        • Judging by the fact that the greatest drop was between ’59 and ’78, when Harris and Hitchens were nobodies and Dawkins was still writing evolutionary biology, I’m guessing not a whole lot.

          But please, don’t let facts get in the way of blaming minorities for their own oppression.


          • I would think it possible to ask a question without “blaming minorities for their own oppression.” Especially when we don’t really know what Mr. Carr’s religious views are (I would personally be more surprised if he were devout than an atheist.)

            But please, don’t let unknowns get in the way of suppositions regarding the integrity of people that you suppose to be your opponents.


            • I’m fascinated by religion in the way Mark is fascinated by politics. To continue what may be a tasteless comparison, I’m generally put off by the above-mentioned super atheists like W.E.B. Du Bois was probably put off by Booker T. Washington (and vice-versa). Or, I’m still a Red Sox fan even though I know Red Sox fans are obnoxious. I’m still an American even if I didn’t support the Vietnam War (or I wouldn’t have if I were alive). I believe in the power of criticism to force introspection and refine behavior, so I prefer to criticize my own team. That being said, I don’t know if I would call myself “Atheist”. I enjoy talking with and find commonality with members of Eastern religions and squishier members of Western religions more than I enjoy listening to Hitchens rail against Mother Theresa between shots. I value the sense of wonder that thinking about religion fosters and that I see in scientists like Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein but don’t really see in scientists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I prefer to contemplate the unknown more than I like to contemplate the known. I like intuitive people more than I like rule-followers.


          • I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the Dawkins / Hitchens question as Mr. Carr did. There has been an apparent decline in “no” votes since the 1950s, etc., but that doesn’t meant that a backlash against ueber atheists might not explain why the no-vote number is still pretty high.


        • None. Look at the dates.

          I do think Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al. have produced a cultural backlash, particularly among evangelicals, and that it has had some political and societal implications. If nothing else, it’s made a lot of evangelical authors a lot of money writing books and articles in response to them. I’m not sure whether they could have avoided this by toning down some of their rhetoric. For one, evangelicals have a tendency to feel persecuted as it is (fundamentalists, on the other hand, are going to feel persecuted no matter what), and it’s likely the backlash has less to do with the tone of the New Atheist rhetoric than the fact that, to many conservative Christians, their popularity is seen as yet another sign of encroaching secularism, regardless of how they express themselves. Granted, I don’t think Dawkins did himself any favors with either his tone or his anti-intellectualism, but I doubt most of the people who react to New Atheism have read all that much of him, or of Harris or Hitchens or Dennett. Their very existence as public figures is enough to create a backlash.


        • No, I don’t. That’s a legitimate question, since the poll results referenced are stale by over a decade.

          I imagine they have some impact, but not much. I think (those who are inclined to discard someone based on atheism) is a set with few enough characteristics that the actions of atheists probably don’t have much of an overall impact.

          I mean, if you’re willing to vote for an atheist, exposure to Harris or Dawkins is probably *not* going to change your mind the other way. On the other hand, if you’re not willing to vote for an atheist, it’s probably due to cultural factors that aren’t affected much by the existence of the New Atheists.

          But the numbers might not bear that out. Anyone find ’em?


      • Patrick, following your link I couldn’t find the numbers you posted in the subheading links, but did find the following Pew survey and most recent May 2011, (near the bottom of your link)

        Less Likely to Support:

        Female: 7%
        Black: 3%
        Hispanic: 11%
        Divorced: 11%
        Used Marijuana in the Past: 24%
        Mormon: 25%
        Homosexual: 33%
        Had an Extramarital Affair: 46%
        Not Believe in God: 61%


    • I think part of it is incentives. As the figures quoted show, there are plenty of people who won’t vote for you if you’re an atheist. But there is virtually nobody who will refuse to vote for any theist (even among nonbelievers). So being expressly religious is pretty much common sense if you’re an aspiring pol.


  4. Great post, and I’m glad to say I actually agree with you one this.

    I’m curious, what do you think had brought upon this especially spirited branding of Christianity as of late. Were politicians pandering to Christians this much 30 years ago? Or is it simply as Jaybird infers, that the pandering has become seemingly less authentic as of late.


  5. In fact, President Obama did so just this year, asserting the Resurrection as historical fact [!]:

    And to think, I only voted for him because I thought he was a Muslim.


    • Actually, having read the rest of the post….

      (1). I myself have found that the name of God is on the lips of every drunk.

      You need to drink at our house sometime.

      (2). Back when God was considered a reality, the details were largely left open.

      Leaving the details open was important, when differing on those details could and did bring violence. The Founders needed empty talk about religion because pushing evangelical Christianity (or whatever) would be too divisive.

      It may still be. But I can’t say I was too worked up about the prayer rally. Whatever. Oh, and seriously, I didn’t vote for Obama.


  6. I also think the presence of state established churches had some effect in channelling the intensity of religious expressions. At the very least, religious speech threatened tax payor support and the implicit enjoyment of being a part of the state’s cultural establishment.


  7. Thx for the props & replies, gents. Originally, I was just going to whack Perry upside the head for departing from the presidential custom of non-sectarian God-talk. But in my view, the custom was really broken in the 2008 election, at Rev. Rick Warren’s


    BHO and John McCain were each quizzed on their religious beliefs, something for which George Washington and ironically even Ronald Reagan might have told him to jump in the lake, as none of his business. [Reagan’s mentions of Jesus Christ were precious few; his grave marker contains a uniquely non-Calvinist sentiment, yet evangelicals certainly thought of him as one of their own.]

    Management has given a go-ahead for a sub-blog, so I thought I’d open the Athens & Jerusalem closet to see what tumbles out: If it’s wrong for Perry to call God Jesus, shall we expect Rep. Keith Ellison not to refer to “Allah?”

    And the larger question is beyond elections and specific candidates– whether we shall expect those who believe God is a reality to act and speak as though He isn’t.

    I think we’re in a watershed era—abetted by 20th and 21st century jurisprudence—as volatile as the Founding or when a thoroughly Protestant America had to accommodate the sentiments of millions of Catholic immigrants. And although the question of sectarianism has rightly expanded beyond our historical intramural Christian scuffles to Islam [or Wicca!] per the goose and gander, the overarching issue is Whither God?

    Or Wither God. Yes, Mr. Kuznicki, I had you in mind with “the lips of every drunk” bit. But even drunk atheists talk about God, or the absence of same. But as I admitted, I haven’t met them all yet.


    To Messrs. Gach and RTod, we could certainly ascribe cynical motives to Gov. Perry laying claim to the evangelical vote with this. But I’d also note that by standing with the more controversial figures like Hagee, he’s assuring them he won’t throw them under the bus like John McCain did. There is substance there beyond mere pander.

    And at this point, we have Mitt Romney and Mormonism on the horizon. If you’re up on your South Park [and I’m sure you are], the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints has some, er, interesting truth claims and customs. We’ve had a couple thousand years to get used to the idea of Christ-in-a-cracker, but that’s nothing next to Planet Kolob or a president’s Holy Underwear.

    Lots of stuff yet in the political theology closet even as we try to nail it shut.

    [Thx again & cheers to all.]


    • BHO and John McCain were each quizzed on their religious beliefs, something for which George Washington and ironically even Ronald Reagan might have told him to jump in the lake, as none of his business. [Reagan’s mentions of Jesus Christ were precious few; his grave marker contains a uniquely non-Calvinist sentiment, yet evangelicals certainly thought of him as one of their own.]

      I would tend to doubt that George Washington or even Ronald Reagan would be so confused as to regard a very public affiliation as ‘none of your business’. Mr. Reagan, unlike Richard Nixon, was not peculiarly reticent about matters religious. A question about eschatology came up in one of the Presidential debates in 1984 which he answered.

      The term ‘evangelical’ is a part of the official nomenclature only of Lutheran congregations. Lutheran congregations are not Calvinist. ‘Evangelical’ also describes protestants who manifest a certain sensibility and mode of expression, along with certain spare affimations (e.g. ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’). They are commonly Baptist or Methodist. Baptist congregations are non-creedal. They may draw on Calvinist theology, but they are not committed to it. Methodists bodies are generally Arminian. Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed are formally Calvinist, but people in these bodies are seldom evangelical (or notably Calvinist either at this date).

      Ronald Reagan was all his life a member of the Disciples of Christ, a non-creedal body. No particular reason to expect Calvinist sentiments on his tombstone.


      • Mr. Deco, for the Protestantism scorecard, we are in your debt.

        As for Reagan, there is precious little on his theology, and the first sentence on his tomb is quite Pelagian. ;-)

        And yes, “evangelical” is a descriptive, not a definitive term. Even some papists self-appellate as such. The assertion was that many of them saw Reagan as one of their own, although there is no hard evidence that he was.

        You’re quite right that the Stone-Campbell Movement’s Disciples of Christ is non-creedal, in fact they’re so non-creedal that you needn’t even accept the Trinity. [The Campbells were Trinitarian; Stone rejected it explicitly.] However, spurred by your spur, I ran across this


        where in private correspondence, Reagan seems to embrace CS Lewis’ argument for Jesus-as-God. This I did not know. Thank you for the reply. I live for the comments sections.

        Lewis, Mere Christianity: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”


        • I’ve seen this Lewis quote before, but I don’t agree with it — it’s easy enough to imagine a historical Jesus whose actual statements stopped short of claiming special divinity, leaving that assertion to be made by his hagiographers. Or alternately, a Jesus who said many wise things but who got carried away by his own popularity and confidence. Lewis’ statement holds up only if one demands that Jesus actually said what he is said to have said and that the claim of divinity is more important than anything else he said.


          • KenB, I somewhat agree with you on the biblicism of CS Lewis’ claim about Jesus’ divinity. Back in the Founding era, the unitarians, more properly “Unitarian Christians,” used the Bible itself to deny Jesus-Is-God.

            100 Scriptural Arguments For the Unitarian faith, Samuel Barrett, 1825, but familiar arguments since 1700 or so. Pretty persuasive stuff.

            Still, Jesus, even according to Unitarian Christians and the Stone-Campbell Movement, saw Jesus as the Christ, a unique cosmological role as Messiah or Savior, not just a Moses or Great Moral Teacher. This is my sociological razor for discussing “Christianity.”

            My own interest is in political theology and theological history, not Christian theology itself. There are, afterall, some 35,000 sects of Christianity, and I imagine a new one probably just winked into existence as we type back and forth.

            I don’t do theological truth claims in public fora one way or the other, as it’s above our pay grade.



            • There are, afterall, some 35,000 sects of Christianity

              No. There are thousands of protestant sects. About two-thirds of all Christians continue to adhere to the Church founded by Christ. Many if not most of the remainder belong to a half-dozen communions with valid holy orders.


      • “I would tend to doubt that George Washington or even Ronald Reagan would be so confused as to regard a very public affiliation as ‘none of your business’.”

        I’m not sure what the applicability to today might be; but back then public Church “affiliation” most certainly did NOT equate with belief in or adherence towards official church doctrines. A great deal of those notable, especially Virginia, Founding Fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and many others) were Anglicans. And Anglicanism, as a matter of official “doctrine” demanded Tory-ism or loyalty towards the crown.

        Being a “Whig” and an “Anglican” automatically put one in a position where one was a member of a religious body while in some way dissenting from what that religious body posited in its official doctrines. For Anglican Whigs it was a matter of just how many of my church’s doctrines do I really reject. None of them was an atheist. They all, even Jefferson (a vestryman in the Anglican Church!), considered themselves “Christians.” But not all of them went so far as Jefferson did rejecting “The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.”


        • I distinctly remember a great deal of reticence to self identify as Christian among many of the Founding Fathers. Some of them had some pretty tough things to say about Christianity – and not just Jefferson.


          • I think they understood themselves “Christians” in a cultural, ethno-identificatory sense. Some, like Jefferson, Franklin, J. Adams had problems with certain orthodox doctrines in “Christianity.” Others seemed not to think much about those doctrines (Washington, Madison).


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