Perry Tempers His "War on Religion" Views
One of the hallmark moments of Rick Perry’s first campaign for president was his “Strong” ad, in which he donned a Carhartt jacket and looked straight into the camera, warning against a “war on religion” being waged by the Obama administration.
“I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school,” Perry said in the ad. “As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion, and I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.”
But Perry 2.0 is hoping to put some space between that ad, which was widely panned, and the former Texas governor’s current campaign.
“I think the ad was a reflection of what I felt like at that particular point in time,” Perry told RealClearPolitics in an interview Saturday.
The shift illustrates Perry’s personal and political evolution since he last ran for president, as well as the challenge he will face in squaring his past campaign with his present one.
As a candidate for president in 2011, Perry made his religious faith a cornerstone of his campaign, beginning with “The Response,” a prayer rally Perry hosted in Houston in August 2011 for a crowd of roughly 30,000 worshippers. Held just one week before Perry announced his bid for president, the event set the tone for his candidacy.
Perry might have been looking to emulate Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign for president, which had combined Huckabee’s religious appeal as a former Baptist pastor with his executive experience as governor of Arkansas. Perry is himself a devout Christian, who worships at an evangelical mega church.
That strategy culminated in Perry’s famous “Strong” advertisement. The ad, which aired on television in Iowa, also became a viral sensation: To date, it has racked up more than 9 million views on YouTube.
As the ad debuted and the backlash hit, reports surfaced that Perry’s campaign advisers had been split about whether to run it. It hardly mattered: It was December 2011, and Perry’s campaign was already in its twilight.
With Perry in his second act as a presidential candidate, the ad is a stinging reminder of a failed campaign. But it also dredges up a caricaturized version of Perry that he would rather leave behind in this new election cycle.
Today, Perry does not explicitly disown the ad — but neither does he back it.
“There’s nothing that’s changed in my belief cycle,” Perry told RealClearPolitics. “I happen to think marriage is between one man and one woman, and I do think that there’s some real challenges with trying to change socially the structure of our military.”
But would Perry say Americans face a “war on religion”?
“I think that religious freedom needs to be protected in this country,” he said in response, an implicit “no.” “We passed a religious freedom act in Texas in 1999, and I do believe that the Judeo-Christian values that this country was based upon are very much important not only to the history of this country, but the future of this country.”
If Perry says his personal values are largely unchanged, his political shift was evident last week at a conference hosted by the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C.
The venue is often used as a proving ground for Republican candidates hoping to appeal to the religious right — and many candidates transparently crafted their speeches as such.
"I believe 2016 will be the religious liberty election," said Sen. Ted Cruz, a fellow Texan.
Cruz also used his speech to warn that an upcoming Supreme Court decision on gay marriage could fulfill a Democratic goal to impose “mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states.”
“I would encourage everyone here to be lifting up in prayer that [the Supreme Court] not engage in an act of naked and lawless judicial activism tearing down the marriage laws adopted pursuant to the Constitution,” Cruz said.
But Perry, who just four years ago said that the elimination of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” reflected a “war on religion” by the Obama administration, said nothing in his own speech about the upcoming landmark ruling on same-sex marriage, and instead focused primarily on matters unrelated to religion.
In an interview afterward, Perry suggested he would not pursue a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman, should the Supreme Court rule in favor of same-sex marriage.
“My record on traditional marriage is very clear,” Perry said. “I don’t know how long it’s been since we’ve changed the Constitution of the United States. So, I work with the reality that that is a very, very long process.”
Perry added: “I think a more appropriate focus for those of us that are running for the presidency of the United States is to remind people that the next president of the United States could appoint up to three people on the Supreme Court.”