Point Austin: The Devil and Gov. Perry

'Spiritual Warfare' is no substitute for the earthly obligations of government

Gov. Rick Perry
Gov. Rick Perry (Photo by John Anderson)

Thanks to Texas Governor-for-Life Rick Perry, we now know the U.S. Constitution is the work of the devil. Perhaps you were under the traditional, satanically induced delusion that those 18th century rationalists – aka the Founding Fathers – were the authors of our fundamental governing document, in particular of the First Amend­ment, which begins: "Con­gress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

According to theologian and constitutional scholar Perry, satanists – starting sometime in the American 1960s, historical source of all evil – are responsible for the notion that, as Perry put it: "Somehow or another there's this, ya know, steel wall, this iron curtain or whatever you want to call it between the church [sic] and people of faith, and this separation of church and state is just false on its face." Perry delivered this revelation just last week, in a conference call organized by hotshot evangelical preacher Rick Scarborough (himself a sanctified nutter who credited Perry's prayer meetings with ending the Texas drought).

As a contemporary of the governor, I too like to pretend all human history began with my birth and then got morally complicated just about the time I reached puberty. But in fact this annoying "separation" doctrine dates back to our revolutionary forebears and the 18th century. The classic formulation is credited to Thomas Jeffer­son in 1802, in a letter to a group of Con­necticut Bap­tists concerned about potential state attempts to restrict their religious beliefs. Responded Jeffer­son, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

Most of us (including the U.S. courts) over the following centuries have read Jeffer­son's analysis and the Establishment Clause itself as reassuring religious (and nonreligious) minorities that the government is constitutionally prohibited from favoring any form of religious beliefs in the public arena. Not so, says Gov. Good Hair, Empty Head – the very notion is simply one more instance of "Satan [running] across the world with his doubt and with his untruths."

The devil made Jefferson do it.

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Plenty of commentators have reacted with skepticism to Perry's latest pronouncement, and, in truth, after his farcical presidential campaign Perry's national reputation is so damaged that most dismissed it as one more "Oops!" moment from Gov. Dun­der­­head. And Perry's statement was delivered in such a rambling fashion that the governor seemed on rhetorical autopilot – somebody punched the speakerphone, told him the evangelicals were on the line (organizing yet another pseudo-religious, electioneering revival, "40 Days To Save Amer­ica"), and he dutifully bloviated about religion, faith, evil secularists, and Satan. ("To be extremely, completely candid," wrote The Dallas Morn­ing News' Jacquielynn Floyd, "much of it fell on my puzzled ears like gibberish.")

But then Perry went on to call on his fellow "Christian warriors, Christian soldiers" to engage in "spiritual warfare" against the efforts of "President Obama and his cronies in Washington [to] continue their efforts to remove any trace of religion from American life." Substitute "Muslim" for "Christian," and his ramblings might have emerged from the mouth of an Islamic fundamentalist – who would of course be roundly condemned by the governor and his co-religionists.

Just Say No

We've become so accustomed to the nonsense masked as religiosity that regularly spews from our politicians, that when they engage in this reckless talk of "spiritual warfare," our tendency is to shrug and turn the page. Yet amid all the lamentations over political "polarization," little attention is paid to the role this explicitly religious demagoguery plays in undermining the public welfare, by making it increasingly impossible for people of differing political positions to simply sit down and reason together. It's one thing to negotiate a compromise over, say, health care or public education, if you believe your opponent across the aisle is simply wrong or shortsighted or misinformed. It's another thing entirely if you've managed to convince yourself that he's in league with Satan himself.

Yet it's easy enough to adopt Perry's sanctified paranoia as a measure of public policy in Texas. That business franchise tax that he and the Republican legislators promised would solve the state's budgetary problems, while enabling massive property tax cuts – you thought it was the work of bumbling elected officials, but in fact Satan planned the whole thing, which is why it turned out so badly. Those massive education cuts, which for the first time failed to fund even student population growth in the public schools, violating both state law and the Texas Constitution? The devil made them do that, too. And if you want to blame Perry and the Legis­lature (predominantly men, of course) for imposing tyrannical, invasive medical procedures on Texas women while simultaneously slashing women's basic health care programs in the naked service of Perry's presidential ambitions – all the while sanctimoniously declaring their fealty to the cause of "life" – it's only too tempting to respond, no, such reactionary, woman-hating policies could only be the work of the devil.

Once we go down that road, as Desig­nated Preacher Perry remains determined to do – the possibility of rational, functioning government, which is to say a livable community – is increasingly subordinated to a delusional spiritual war between Good and Evil. We're all eligible for conscription on one side or the other. That's what the folks who wrote the First Amendment understood, and what our current generation of elected officials are increasingly inclined to ignore, at all our peril.

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Rick Perry, First Amendment, freedom of religion, fundamentalism, religion

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