The morning before the Iowa Straw Poll — essentially a fundraiser for the Republican Party in the Hawkeye State — Rick Perry, the sitting governor of Texas, announced his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, a race that is still in its relatively early stages.
Perry brings with him executive experience and Lone Star electoral-vote magic. With that experience, of course, comes a record, with the baggage that can bring with it.
Different issues will set off different alarm bells. An early one has been the governor’s decision to issue an executive order to mandate that girls as young as 11 be vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease. In a good example of the checks of democracy at work, the Texas Legislature reversed the order. Perry hadn’t reached the first weekday of his presidential campaign before he called it a “mistake,” explaining that he was motivated to issue the order based on his hatred of cancer, a disease both his parents have fought. Perry allies describe the whole mistake to me as a gut decision on the governor’s part. It sure doesn’t square with his get-the-government-out-of-your-way rhetoric.
Some of the early criticisms of Perry as a presidential-primary contender, though, are disturbing in what they reveal about his critics.
Exhibit A: The Atlantic headline: “Is Rick Perry as Christian as He Thinks He Is?” During the same week that Michele Bachmann, on NBC’s Meet the Press, begged off being a “judge” of Americans who identify as homosexual, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend happily stepped into the role. Townsend, the late Robert F. Kennedy’s eldest child, joined a chorus of commentators outraged by the recent prayer rally Perry, a Methodist who attends an evangelical church, participated in as part of a statewide day of prayer. She was peeved about the rally, annoyed about his politics (equating it with ignoring or rejecting the Gospel message of charity), both irritated by his proclamations of faith and wanting to know more about what she’d likely deride as a “Gospel According to Perry.”
“An alternative to assuming our views are aligned with God’s is to humbly acknowledge that God works in mysterious ways and that our human nature may blind us to his will,” Townsend writes in The Atlantic, warning Perry of pride.
She goes on to write: “No one has a monopoly on faith. In a democratic nation, simply saying you believe in Christ doesn’t mean you get a free pass and don’t have to explain your positions. The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us that it is our actions, not our public displays of piety, that make us good neighbors.”
But a good neighbor might welcome Perry’s call to prayer — which, by the way, began with that “humility” word Townsend raised: “Lord, you are the source of every good thing. You are our only hope. And we stand before you today in awe of your power and in gratitude for your blessings, in humility for our sins.” (Emphasis added. His remarks at the rally can be read on the event’s website.)
There was nothing partisan about his prayer. It was not Tea Party-tested, and it was not pandering: “Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government. And as a nation we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us; and for that we cry out for your forgiveness.”
He even prayed for the president he would soon announce he wanted to defeat in 2012: “We pray for our nation’s leaders, Lord — for parents, for pastors, for the generals, for governors — that you would inspire them in these difficult times. Father, we pray for our president, that you would impart your wisdom upon him, that you would guard his family. We pray for our military and the families who love them. Father, especially for those special operators who lost their life yesterday in defending our freedoms.”
He ended: “You call us to repent, Lord, and this day is our response. We give it all to you. For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen and amen.”
Townsend complains in her piece about Perry’s aversion to welfare statism, accusing him of missing 2,500 social-gospel passages in the Bible, citing Rick Warren as her source. But these are prudential political issues.
Others, like MSNBC host Laurence O’Donnell, insist that Perry has a Catholic problem because the prayer rally included San Antonio mega pastor John Hagee, most notably known for referring to the Catholic Church as a “great whore.” For this, Hagee has often been a lightening rod during Republican primary seasons past — in large part because protests by Bill Donohue, indefatigable president of the Catholic League, tell there is more to the story.
Hagee subsequently explained himself and apologized. And Donohue, among others, accepted. As Donohue tells me: “Whatever problems I had with Pastor John Hagee’s previous remarks about the Catholic Church were put to rest when he came to my office a few years ago seeking reconciliation and apologizing for any unfortunate comments he made over the years about Catholicism. I appreciate his sincerity. In other words, it is ludicrous to try to tag Governor Perry with a ‘Catholic problem’ by associating with Pastor Hagee. I associate with him myself!”
Does Perry have a too-cavalier attitude about capital punishment? This should be a concern for Catholic voters, though it should also be seen in a proper context. Francis Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, tells me: “As a Catholic philosopher, I am uneasy about the seemingly unrestrained use of the death penalty in Texas, though in Catholic moral theology the death penalty is not an intrinsic wrong like abortion and active euthanasia. So, it would be a mistake to treat Perry’s support and implementation of the death penalty as the moral equivalent of the liberal Catholic ‘pro-choice but personally opposed’ position on abortion.”
And while Townsend cites her Catechism on pride, it’s hard not to notice that Townsend, who is a supporter of legal abortion, doesn’t mention abortion anywhere in her piece about Perry’s ignorance of moral matters.
Perry is opposed to legal abortion and has a record as governor that reflects that. Known for being an earnest advocate of the 10th Amendment, this summer he voiced his view that abortion is a matter for the states, but later indicated support for amending the U.S. Constitution to protect the unborn. He made the same quick transition on marriage, going from responding to a question about same-sex “marriage” in New York as the Empire State’s business which he was “fine” with to expressing his support for a Federal Marriage Amendment. Perhaps these are the growing pains of someone trying to transition from a state executive to national leader. Time will tell how all of this plays out and how the campaign itself does.
Some — especially those who have been listening to Los Angeles’ Archbishop Jose Gomez and incoming Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput — will press him on immigration and absolutely ask him questions about what exactly the federal government’s responsibility is to the poor and how his philosophy will guide his administration. (And the same people who protested Catholic Speaker of the House John Boehner at Catholic University of America’s commencement in May will probably not take anything like citing subsidiarity as an answer.)
But to dismiss him for praying? That doesn’t seem to have a moral leg to stand on.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. Look for Register Correspondent Charlotte Hays’ profile of Perry in an upcoming print edition of the Register and on NCRegister.com