Conservative Christians rush to Rick Perry’s side

September 22, 2011

From media mavens to grassroots activists, conservative Christian
leaders have been heaping praise on presidential candidate Rick Perry,
an early but important show of support from a vital GOP constituency.

Initially
unimpressed with the 2012 presidential field, some of these
evangelicals heralded Perry's late entry as the second coming of Ronald
Reagan. Like Reagan, they say, Perry is a big-state governor, a staunch
conservative and, significantly, a fellow Christian.

Perry, in
turn, has suffused his campaign with religion, building on strategies
honed for years in Texas politics. He has huddled with social
conservatives at a Texas retreat, hosted a high-profile Chris­tian
prayer rally in Houston and recited his prodigal-son spiritual testimony
at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

On September 20,
Perry said his Christian faith includes a "clear directive" to support
Israel—a view shared by many evangelicals, who believe that God gave the
land to the Jewish people. Early returns suggest that the Texas
governor's efforts were paying off, particularly among elder evangelical
statesmen:

  • Donald E. Wildmon,
    founder and former head of the American Family Association, is endorsing
    Perry. The Mississippi-based AFA organized and spent $600,000 to
    finance Perry's prayer rally, called "The Response," and later it
    directed its 30,000 participants to a new Christian voter-registration
    campaign. "I think the overwhelming majority of what's often called the
    religious right will support the governor," said Wildmon, whose
    organization boasts a mailing list of 60,000 pastors and operates 180
    radio stations. "I'm going to do whatever I can to help the man get
    elected."
  • Former Focus on the Family head James Dobson has
    gushed over Perry on his new radio show, calling him a "deeply committed
    Christian" and a courageous leader. Dobson helped organize The Response
    and reportedly will appear with Perry at an October event in Orlando.
  • Liberty University chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. has mused that Perry
    could be another Reagan and called him "one of the most pro-life
    governors in American history." Falwell also said he admires the
    governor's "guts" for suggesting that Texas could secede from the union.
  • Evangelical historian and activist David Barton, a longtime Perry ally,
    has circulated a 14-point defense of the governor's record on economic,
    social and immigration issues.
  • Southern Baptist leader
    Richard Land has penned an op-ed that portrays Perry as shrewd, deeply
    conservative and a lifelong evangelical of "genuine" faith. (Perry's own
    account differs slightly. He says he was spiritually lost as a young
    man before turning to God at age 27.)
  • Grassroots activist
    David Lane, who organized "pastor policy briefings" featuring Perry
    during his 2006 campaign for governor, is reportedly planning similar
    events in battleground states, including one in Florida this fall. Lane
    was finance chairman of The Response. "I'd be very surprised if the
    emergence of David Lane's projects in several states was about anything
    other than supporting Gov. Perry," said Kathy Miller, president of the
    Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that has monitored Perry's ties
    to conservatives for years.

In addition, Perry has been
invited to appear with Dobson and Barton at a November 12 event called
"One Nation Under God" that is intended to teach Christians to see
"history and current events in light of God's Word, and how to take
action that aligns with his truth."

Conservative evangelical
leaders desperately want to deny President Obama a second term, said
Doug Wead, a veteran GOP strategist and senior adviser to Ron Paul's
presidential campaign. "And they decided early that Perry is their best
shot," he said.

The conservative Christian movement is less
top-down than many in the media suspect, said John C. Green, an expert
on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. But
grassroots activists take note when evangelical eminences like Dobson
praise a particular candidate. "Lots of conservative Christians still
take cues from these individuals," Green said.

If they unite
behind a candidate, evangelicals can have a huge electoral impact,
especially in key states like Iowa and South Carolina, where they
constitute nearly half of all GOP voters, said Green.

Perry's very
public "I once was lost, but now I'm found" spiritual speech at Liberty
University September 14 got the media's attention, but it was his
confab at a secluded Texas ranch in August that impressed the religious
right heavyweights, said Land. More than 200 social conservatives were
there—from black Pentecostals to conservative Catholics to Latino
evangelicals, according to Land, president of the Southern Baptist
Con­vention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

"The
general feeling people came away with is that this guy is the real
deal," said Land, who attended. "I don't see how the meeting could have
gone any better for Perry."

[Nevertheless, "electability" in the
general election next year is still an issue. A GOP panel discussion on
Fox News Channel September 25 heavily criticized Perry after long-shot
candidate Herman Cain easily won a Florida straw vote held after a poor
debate performance by Perry.]    

Mark DeMoss, who heads a
Christian public relations agency and advises Mitt Romney's campaign,
said he is not surprised that many evangelical leaders back Perry. "A
significant number of evangelicals have always wanted, above anything
else in their candidate, someone who shares their Christian faith and
theology, and apparently Gov. Perry does," DeMoss said.

However,
DeMoss added, it is too early in the campaign to declare Perry the GOP's
Chosen One. "Gov. Perry is only just beginning to be vetted on the
national stage," DeMoss said. "The dynamics are changing almost
weekly." —RNS