Texas Governor Rick Perry’s national call to prayer has provoked predictable criticism from secularists (for the blurring of church-state lines) and mockery from the news media, who have dubbed Saturday’s event “ The Prayerpalooza.” But the weekend-long plea for Jesus’ guidance may have a more lasting consequence for Perry, and for the GOP broadly: a veering away from the course that gave Republicans a win in 2010, and momentum heading into 2012.
A combination of luck and political shrewdness has allowed Republicans to re-brand the GOP as the party of fiscal restraint, despite the profligacy of the George W. Bush years. Key to establishing this green-eyeshade identity, especially among independents, was de-emphasizing the party’s rigidity on social issues, and its reliance on the Christian right for energy and issues. The Republican presidential contenders, even the most fervently religious among them, such as Michele Bachmann, have focused almost exclusively on economic issues—until now.
Perry’s prayer rally, at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, comes at a moment of maximum exposure for Perry, just as he is poised to enter the presidential race. The press attention to the prayer event (more than 250 media credentials were requested) will frame Perry as the candidate from the Christian right, a characterization his own tent-preacher speaking style will reinforce once he hits the campaign trail. His near-certain status as a top-tier candidate will likely magnify the GOP’s identification with the Christian right, and the divisive culture-war politics that alienated independents in 2008.
After that electoral debacle, some astute Republicans, including figures from the party’s most conservative core, recognized that the expansive Obama agenda was a gift to the GOP—forcing the Party to try to recover its lost reputation for fiscal responsibility. Senatorial candidates such as Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio in Florida, once considered too conservative to win, swept aside establishment Republicans (forcing Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist out of the party) and won election as fiscal hawks.
When John Boehner and Eric Cantor rallied their House minority to vote unanimously against Obama’s stimulus package in early 2009, Democrats and critics in the media dubbed Republicans “the Party of No.” It was meant pejoratively, but the new branding perfectly suited the mood that gave rise to the new movement, opposed to free spending and government overreach, that became the Tea Party movement. Boehner’s ability to channel the Tea Party made him Speaker of the House. The Christian Right remained a critical component of the Republican base, and was essential to the 2010 election gains, but the Tea Party shaped the GOP’s new public identity.
For Perry, the implications of the prayer rally pose a certain irony. His greatest potential allure resides in his having presided over the “Texas miracle”—that state’s remarkable record of job growth in the teeth of the recession. But as he introduces himself nationally, the Right Reverend Rick may be the image that fixes in the public mind.
Secular activist groups, such as People for the American Way, will point to the more extreme seeming elements associated with Perry’s brand of conservative faith (and yesterday accused Perry of embracing “a troubling sectarian vision for the country”).
And the press will certainly feel obliged to point out the most glaring risk in Perry’s prayer rally ploy. In the spring, Perry declared a 72-hour “Days of Prayer for Rain in Texas,” which has been followed by the persistence of one of the worst Texas droughts in history.