Does the GOP Field Need a Good 'Ol Boy?

Perry Newsweek.jpgIn my column today about the GOP candidates and religion, I mention an event that Rick Perry is organizing called The Response, which follows up on Perry's previous call for Texans to pray for rain by getting folks together to pray for God to solve a whole range of public policy problems. Some in the GOP see Perry as a potential savior to deliver them from a weak field of presidential candidates. Because maybe a good-looking but not-too-bright Texas governor is just what America needs.

But if Perry is going to run, people ought to be aware of just how sectarian his religious views are. Most politicians try to walk a careful line between showing religious voters that religion is important in their lives, but not alienating those who have a different faith than the politician. Not Perry. Although he's a Methodist (and as Doyle McManus recently pointed out, none of the announced candidates hails from a mainline Protestant denomination), his brand of religion is unapologetically evangelical. And so is this event. As Sarah Posner explains, while the event is open to anyone, the organizers have admitted that if any non-Christians show up, they'll be targets for conversion. (And you should click over to Sarah's piece to watch the terrific video of a time when, at a similar event, she got called up by a visiting Zimbabwean minister so they could lay hands on her Jew reporter self and try to get her to come to Jesus. When that didn't seem to work, the minister locked her in a hug that went on a really, really awkwardly long time. Sarah remained admirably cordial and polite throughout.)

We've only had one truly evangelical, born-again president -- Jimmy Carter. Contrary to popular belief, George W. Bush was neither evangelical nor born again, as Ayelish McGarvey explained in a 2004 TAP article. For all the electoral importance of evangelical voters, evangelical politicians can make people very uncomfortable, since the fundamental stance of evangelicals toward other people is that, to put it plainly, you're going to hell and I'd like to help you change your religion to mine. It's one thing if that stance is shared by many or most of your constituents, but it's something else when they're trying to appeal to a diverse, nationwide electorate. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 26 percent of Americans affiliate with evangelical denominations. That figure is 36 percent in Texas, but only 18 percent in Pennsylvania and 13 percent in Nevada, to take just a couple of swing states as examples.

This can be seen as part of a broader issue: If Perry ran, he'd be the only good 'ol boy in the race, the only one with a Southern accent plainly representing the Southern white men who are the GOP's bedrock. I'd be willing to bet it wouldn't play as well in the rest of the country as some in the party believe.