Perry, who has turned the Republican primary race upside-down overnight, is scaring the Sunday-school dropouts. John Sharp, the Democrat who lost when Perry was elected lieutenant governor of Texas in 1998, offers glum testimony to the Perry prowess. "Running against Perry is like running against God," he says. Everything breaks his way.
"I don't know if God is calling Rick Perry to run for president, but if he runs, the other candidates are going to need a big dose of magic and a lot of shoe leather," Sharp told Texas Monthly magazine. The Harry Potter generation should understand.
The more serious rap on the governor is that he exploits his faith for political purposes, that he puts it too much on display. His big prayer rally in Houston in August, held just before he announced his bid for the Republican nomination for president, was advertised as a call for Christians to pray for a nation in crisis. What could be wrong with prayer? But some of the people praying with Perry have raised the eyebrows -- and the high dudgeon -- of skeptical pundits.
Perry's prayer meeting was joined by followers of something called the New Apostolic Reformation, including believers who call themselves "Dominionists," who see themselves as modern prophets who receive instructions for political action directly from God. That sounds elementary enough to churchgoers, but for these followers, writes Forrest Wilder in the Texas Observer, a liberal weekly in Austin, that means "infiltrating politics and government" with God's message.
"The new prophets and apostles believe Christians -- certain Christians --are destined to not just take 'dominion' over government, but stealthily climb to the commanding heights of what they term the "Seven Mountains of Society, including the media and the arts and entertainment." This worries the mainstream media worriers.
"I care a lot if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed," writes Bill Keller, outgoing executive editor of The New York Times.
It's not clear how someone can be stealthy and devious while proclaiming from the pulpit what he's trying to do. Tom Schlueter, an Apostolic Reformation pastor who regarded the Houston rally as "divinely inspired," told his congregation that God has given him the authority to "infiltrate the governmental mountain." It's not clear how he plans to do that, either.
Michelle Goldberg of the Daily Beast frets that members of the New Apostolic Reformation "see Perry as their ticket to power." She quotes George Grant, a former executive director of Truth in Action Ministries, that "it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice. ... Not just equal time. ... World conquest." Rick Perry as Ghengis Khan? Unlikely, it seems to me, but that's the nightmare disturbing the sleep of some of the pundits.
Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated atheist, appreciates Perry in comparison to Michele Bachmann, whose religion he calls close to "crackpot." He thinks Perry probably doesn't trouble himself with doctrinal matters or "personal saviorhood" but is playing it up big for the rubes.
Aye, and there's the point. The criticism of Perry's religion isn't really about fear that he would plant a theocracy in America, but that he speaks to the unsophisticated -- and in a democracy even the unsophisticated can vote. The Perry detractors in Texas call him "George W. without the brains." The proof is that George W. went to Yale and Perry went to Texas A&M.
Earthiness in plain speech comes naturally to the Aggie, whose parents were tenant farmers. He grew up in a part of Texas his father called "the big empty." His roots are rural, and he's proud of it, and his enemies in the fierce politics of Texas learned the hard way not to underestimate him. He likes being misread and making his critics pay for it.
His religion, like everything else about a candidate for president, is fair game for questions and comment. Candidates before him have had to answer questions about their faith -- John F. Kennedy and his Roman Catholicism, Carter's being born again, Obama's membership in the church of an incendiary pastor in Chicago. Obama scolded liberal skeptics who "dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant." He prescribed a serious debate to "reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy." Some things don't change.