And God will give Gov. Rick Perry a dog whistle

 

Governor Rick Perry just did himself a world of good in Texas politics but probably killed his shot at the presidency with the ostensibly nondenominational but clearly, obviously, and unmistakably evangelical Christian event called ‘The Response’ that he hosted yesterday in Houston.  Perry is an evangelical Methodist and inching his way towards an announcement that he will run for president in 2012 so this group prayer for ‘A Nation in Crisis’ was seen as a major test of his pulling power.  A lesser man — or a state less given to charitable Christian interpretation than Texas — would have looked upon a crowd that didn’t quite fill half the available seats in the stadium as something of a rebuke, but to the faithful Perry’s unambiguous declaration of his Christian faith was thrilling.  This was not the dog-whistle messaging of most campaigns, in which subtle references are thrown out that only the intended audience can hear.  This was not even the we-know-this-is-convenient tale of George W. Bush being born again after his spoiled, decadent, carousing first forty years.  This was Governor Perry, God’s candidate.  Slate magazine got the message: its generally admiring firsthand report from the rally ran under the headline And God Will Send Rick Perry, in which I detect a background note of skepticism about the political expedience of this event.

But the problem is not expedience, nor even the much debated (in liberal circles) question of whether Perry has inappropriately blurred the line between church and state.  It is that Perry has failed to understand that sectarianism is a regional political strategy, not a national one.  He failed, in short, to understand how Obama got himself elected the first black president.  Someone like Jesse Jackson, though he tried, was never going to be elected president because he was entirely defined by the black civil rights movement so was seen as having a narrow political constituency; even Martin Luther King, Jr. did not gather the sort of broad, diverse constituency required to win national office until his death and the passage of time made him a kind of secular saint.  But Obama positioned himself as black in fact but not in creed and this amorphous definition meant he could be embraced by all kinds, for all sorts of reasons, as one of their own.  As a political figure, you know you’ve gotten this right when people use the awkward phrase ‘happens to be’ when describing you, as in “Obama is an eloquent speaker who happens to be black.”  What yesterday’s rally did was present us with Gov. Perry, sectarian leader.  Perry doesn’t ‘happen to be’ an evangelical Christian, the way Bush was; he has entirely defined himself that way.  There are large parts of the country where that will seem like a good thing — and God knows you can go a long way in the Republican primaries on the Christian vote — but it will also give every Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, and non-evangelical Christian voter pause before embracing Perry, to say nothing of the many evangelicals who are confirmed in their faith as a private matter and don’t wish to see it used for political barnstorming.  This is why dog whistles were invented.  The evangelicals would have heard Perry’s call even without ‘The Response’ but now the rest of us have received the message: Perry is someone else’s candidate.

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