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Rick Perry’s Conveniently Timed Conversion to Radical Evangelicalism

In the months leading up to his declared presidential candidacy, Rick Perry was busy shoring up his religious bonafides. In April, while his state burned under 8,000 wildfires and was afflicted by a pernicious drought, the governor decreed three days of prayer to call rain down from the heavens. A month later, he told a gathering of business leaders that he had been “called to the ministry” at the age of 27, adding: “I’ve just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was gonna have.” Then, in June, the Lone Star leader invited his fellow governors and Christians to join him in Houston on August 6 for a 30,000-person rally dubbed The Response—a time of “prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation.” All this begs the question: Has Perry always been so pious? 

He has, at least, always been reliably religious—in the way a Texan Republican must be. Staunchly pro-life and a regular on the church-speaker circuit, Perry knows the language of faith and the value of courting Christian constituents. Case in point: On a Sunday in 2005, as he geared up to face a strong primary challenger in his next election, Perry signed two bills into law—one restricting abortion, the other gay marriage—in the gymnasium of an evangelical church school. Critics denounced the opportunistic locale, but Perry shrugged off detractors. “If we did this in a parking lot of Wal-Mart, God would be there,” he said. God, he seemed to say, was everywhere, so why bother trying to separate church and state?

Despite such public displays of piety, Perry’s early religious background is more aligned with that of mainstream religious figures. Growing up Methodist, he belonged to the mainline tradition that counts both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton among its members. For years, starting in the 1990s, Perry and his family attended the same affluent Austin-area United Methodist church that Bush 43 did. He has spoken fondly of the denomination, of which he’s still a member, with its liturgy, and its “comfort in tradition and stability.” And yet, in recent years, Perry has chosen to spend most Sundays attending services at an evangelical megachurch, where worship is decidedly flashier—featuring rock music and stadium-style seating.

Politically, he’s been looking to more contemporary, and radical, Christian movements as well. Since at least 2009, as reported in The Texas Observer, Perry has been meeting with ministers affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a loose network of charismatic Christians that espouse a form of Dominionism—the belief that Christians should dominate every facet of life, from government to the arts. (As Ryan Lizza recently documented in The New Yorker, Michele Bachmann aligns herself with some of these teachings.) Like Christian Right movements before them, NAR adherents deny the separation of church and state and actively encourage Christians to engage in politics. Known for apocalyptic, endtime theology and ecstatic worship, NAR followers speak in tongues and talk of prophecies, demons, and spiritual warfare. They have a habit of setting up houses of prayer in proximity to centers of power—for instance, near Harvard and close to the Supreme Court—believing their prayers can enact change upon institutions. One associated ministry, The Call, has been known to pack stadiums to pray against abortion and same-sex marriage. Perry’s prayer rally was modeled on those very gatherings.

As The Response’s self-described “initiator,” Rick Perry moved closer to extreme branches of Christianity more publicly than ever before. The Christian-only rally was funded by the American Family Association, a Mississippi ministry designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay sentiments. Many of the event’s supporters were NAR ministers, including Lou Engle, who helped lead the fight for California’s Prop 8 and whose 2010 rally in Uganda seemed to lend support to the country’s draconian anti-homosexuality bill. Another NAR stalwart, Mike Bickle, was on the roster; the Kansas City prayer warrior once said Oprah would prepare the way for the Anti-Christ. Also onstage at Houston’s Reliant Stadium was John Hagee, the San Antonio minister whose endorsement John McCain had to reject in 2008, after his anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic statements were circulated.

Perry’s outreach to these fringe leaders may look politically risky, if not disastrous, on the eve of his presidential bid. And yet, it might offer him a way to appeal to religious conservatives. As reported in TIME, Ethics Daily, and Religion Dispatches, Christian Right leaders have been meeting behind closed doors, expressing dissatisfaction with the GOP primary field, and, possibly, choosing Perry as their man. NAR-influenced ministers have been cultivating relationships with political figures in recent years, appearing alongside or endorsing Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Sam Brownback, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann.

Despite their growing influence within certain circles, the clergy behind The Response are largely unknown outside their ministry networks; these are not celebrities, the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons of the old guard Christian Right. Their relative anonymity might, surprisingly, also help Perry. The more secular-minded among the American electorate aren’t likely to object to Perry befriending a minister of whom they’ve never even heard. Thus, Perry can court the extreme leaders (and their dedicated fans), obtain their support, and still retain a veneer of mainline Protestantism that is palatable for most Americans. When up against Romney, a Mormon, and Bachmann in a primary, the move may be politically astute. Perry can siphon off evangelical votes from Bachmann and compete ably with Romney for the Christian conservative mantle.

Perry may or may not share the beliefs of his newfound faith friends. No doubt political pandering accounts for some of his zeal. Before his weekend prayer fest, he began to backpedal in the face of criticism over his event’s more incendiary headliners. “I appreciate anyone who’s going to endorse me,” he said. “Just because you endorse me doesn’t mean I endorse everything that you say or do.” To be sure, politicians’ ministerial supporters often incite overblown guilt by association, as they did in 2008 with McCain and Hagee, or Obama and Jeremiah Wright. Still, if we are judged by the company we keep, the jury could stand to take a closer look at Perry.

Tiffany Stanley is the managing editor of Religion & Politics, an upcoming online journal from the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.