Rick Perry didn't resonate with mainstream evangelicals

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 12:17 PM

He held prayer rallies to woo evangelical voters, but they never warmed to him in the way he had hoped.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry bows his head in prayer.

Photo: Daniel Acker, New York Times

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Before he entered the presidential race, Rick Perry knew he needed the support of evangelical Christians. But many never warmed to him, one of their own, and instead gravitated toward Rick Santorum, a Catholic.

Decades ago, it was almost unheard of to see Southern Baptists, most whom identify as evangelicals, rally behind Catholic candidates. They called Catholicism a cult and said Catholics weren’t Christian — the kind of caustic verbiage some use about Mormons like Mitt Romney.

But times changed.

In 2000, the day after winning the New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush spoke in upstate South Carolina at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school whose founder called Catholicism a Satantic cult.

Bush expressed regrets after being widely denounced by rival candidate John McCain and a prominent Catholic cardinal. Soon after, Congressional Democrats introduced a resolution condemning the school for intolerance.

South Carolina is a stronghold for Southern Baptists, the largest of America’s Protestant denominations. There are so few Catholics that some church members think of it as mission territory.

Perry held a prayer rally upstate in Greenville this week, which drew fewer than a thousand souls. It showed how far he’d fallen since entering the race, when speculation was high that he was the kind of non-Romney Republican that Christian conservatives could champion.

Before entering the race last August, Perry played the God card in a big way, gathering 30,000 conservative Christians for a prayer rally at Texas Stadium in Houston.

At his side was controversial Pastor John Hagee, whom John McCain disavowed in his 2008 presidential run. Hagee once called the Catholic Church "the great whore" (he later apologized) and suggested said that God sent Hitler to force Jews back to Israel (claims comments taken out of context).

The Texas religion scene is vastly different than South Carolina. Catholics and Baptists are both dominant, but the range of Baptists includes everything from strong moderates to stanch fundamentalists.

The kind of evangelicals Perry pandered to were a narrow subset known as Christian Zionists, as evidenced by Hagee’s presence, said Dr. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.

“They are people passionate about Israel,” Mason said. “They can put people in the stands. But how many mainstream evangelicals were there? Not as many as the national audience imagined.”

And so it was no surprise to Mason that when a group of high-profile evangelical leaders gathered in Texas last week to decide which candidate to support, they chose Santorum. Perry didn’t make it past the first round. Thrice-married Newt Gingrich even garnered more support.

“Perry is a fiscal conservative and keep government out of people’s business politician,” Mason said. But Santorum believes that government can play a positive role in society, which is more akin to the views of  the pastors. They also share similar values on social and moral issues.

“They’re desperate for a winner,” Mason said. “They want someone who can represent them and win an election. Their last big hope is Santorum, and I think it’s too late.”

In bowing out from the race, it’s interesting to note that Perry snubbed the candidate the evangelical leaders’ chose and threw his weight behind Gingrich.

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Star Tribune editorial writer Susan Hogan previously lived in both South Carolina and Texas covering the religion beat.

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