Coming off his embarrassingly disastrous "oops" run for the presidency four years ago, Rick Perry announced this week that most staffers will no longer receive salaries due to much lower than expected financial donations in his current crawl to the highest office in the land. Political pundits view this as the beginning of the end for Perry in the crowded Republican Presidential sweepstakes. So Rick Perry, say bye bye. We hardly knew you following your divisive and exclusionary tactics last time around.
In the fall of 2011, as I watched from my home in Ames, Iowa the political TV ads of the candidates running in the all-important first-in-the-nation Republican Iowa Caucuses, a recurring theme emerged. In their attempts to appeal to the estimated 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucus goers who define themselves as Evangelical Christians, most of the candidates emphasized their "so-called Christian family values," which, by the way, opposed marriage for same-sex couples and LGBT members in the U.S. military.
After both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made moving and heartfelt speeches in 2011 pressing for civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people internationally, Rick Perry responded:
"This is just the most recent example of an administration at war with people of faith in this country. Investing tax dollars promoting a lifestyle many Americas of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong. President Obama has again mistaken America's tolerance for different lifestyles with an endorsement of those lifestyles."
Rick Perry double-downed his insults. In my capacity as associate professor at Iowa State University in Ames, I taught courses in multicultural education and also LGBT and queer studies. During the final week of classes during the fall semester in December 2011, I was reviewing with students the course material in anticipation for their final exam. Throughout the semester in our Queer Studies course, we had discussed the candidates' positions on the issues. One student asked if we could take a few minutes for him to show former Texas governor Rick Perry's newest TV ad titled "Strong." Projected on the video screen, Perry looking intensely into the camera, wearing a tan leather coat like the men in the film "Brokeback Mountain," sounds of composer Aaron Copeland (who, by the way, was an out gay man) streaming in the background, Perry said:
"I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pews 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. As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again."
Visibly shaken, some students wiped tears from their eyes and cheeks. Others looked bewildered, mouths open, audible gasps escaping. I too felt shaken, attacked, saddened, overwhelmed by his sheer unapologetic and marginalizing tone, and by his blatantly dishonest and deceptive statements.
I learned that Perry was due to speak at a local Ames, Iowa café at a town hall meeting. I showed up to the event thirty minutes before his scheduled arrival giving me some time to talk with his supporters. Joining me was my friend and neighbor, an administrator at one of our local public schools.
We entered and joined three people at a small round table. We introduced ourselves, and I asked whether they supported Rick Perry. One of the women told us that she supported Perry "because he will restore to us the freedoms taken away by Barack Obama." I asked her to tell us what were these freedoms taken away by Obama?
"Well, for one," she forcefully asserted, "students can no longer pledge allegiance to the flag in schools." I told her that this is simply not the case. I turned to my friend who mentioned that students are routinely led by their teachers in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the schools, K-12, unless they voluntarily opt out. "I disagree," cried the supporter. "Well," said my friend, "it's a fact that students pledge the flag in the schools."
So then I asked: "What other freedom has Obama taken away." And she responded, "He took away students' right to pray in the schools." My neighbor responded that this too is simply not true. He told the woman that he sees students praying before taking exams. In his school, students organized a Bible Study Club where they read the Bible together, and sometimes pray. The administration allocates a quiet space for Muslim students to pray 5 times a day according to one of the foundational pillars of Islam. Students hold a prayer vigil each year before their end-of-the-year graduation.
I informed the woman that the courts have held constitutional the teaching of world religions in the public schools, but not the officially-sanctioned promotion of religion. Students are free to pray and to organize prayer sessions as they wish, and Obama has not taken away these rights.
"I disagree," was her response. I asserted that this is not an issue to which one simply agrees or disagrees. This is an issue of fact versus misinformation. "You seem to be buying into the misinformation coming from some of the politicians, like Rick Perry." I suggested that she might want to attend one of her local schools to see what is actually the case related to prayer and the pledge. She responded by arguing that she "had all the information she needed."
By this time, the candidate had arrived and was mounting the stage. I had intended to ask him questions regarding his "Strong" TV ad, and I listened to his canned stump speech. When he seemed to come to a natural break in his remarks, I raised my hand. Being only a few short feet from the candidate, he looked me in the eyes, and continued his brief remarks. I then raised my hand again, he looked at me, turned, and departed the stage for the back door of the café, for he obviously had no intention of considering questions.
At this point, I realized that if I was going address my concern over his campaign ad, I had no option other than shouting. Though my intent in coming to this event was to engage in a reasonable give and take with the candidate, I cupped my hands around my mouth, and yelled "Why are you marginalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people! Why are you marginalizing non-Christians!," which I repeated two or three times.
At this point, Perry supporters attempted to drown me out by shouting the candidate's name in loud unison. One supporter yelled at me: "Hey, this is MY country. This is NOT your country." Someone in the crowd accused me of being "religiously prejudiced" against Perry's religious views.
After the event hit the news outlets, a local newspaper referred to me as "a heckler." One of my students called me and explained: "Well, I guess the definition of a heckler is someone who asks a question that someone else doesn't want to answer." A man who read a news accounts emailed me that the "Founders were all Christians who had intended this as a Christian nation." Seeing my name in the newspaper, he continued that "if I don't like it here then I should move to Israel."
I see that Jeffersonian wall becoming increasing a tattered and bullet-ridden curtain of separation between religion and government. Candidates don their Christian credentials like armor to repel potential attacks on their motivations and character.
Not so very long ago, a Democratic candidate for the presidency came under attack for his Catholic background, with declarations from his detractors that the Vatican will control the White House if John F. Kennedy were elected. Before his election, a group of Protestant leaders strategized ways to disrail his campaign. Four years ago, a group of Protestant leaders met in Texas to defeat frontrunner Mitt Romney, a Mormon, whom they asserted did not take conservative enough stands on the issues. Well, at least they did not meet to prevent Catholic candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, from winning. But I ask, is this real progress, especially since candidates' religious beliefs very often determine, to a large extent, their eventual chances for government service?
Democracy demands an educated electorate. Democracy demands responsibility on the part of the electorate to critically examine our politicians so they can make truly informed decisions.
I observe a certain anti-intellectualism within current political discourse. How often do we hear politicians "accuse" other candidates or those serving in public office of being part of some so-called "elitest" intellectual establishment who are out of touch with "real" Americans. And what about the gendering of politics when we are told either that women don't have the temperament to lead or when a politician calls an opponent's manhood into questions by demanding them to "man up."
During economic downturns, charismatic and not-so charismatic leaders attempt to exploit the fears of the public in their quests for power and control. Conservative political discourse centers on "F" words: Faith, Family, Freedom, and the Flag. This set of buzz words comprise the foundation on which politicians tell us we should decide who is truly worthy of our votes.
After careful and continuous vetting to plough through the reality from the show; the truth in their message from their appeals to fears and insecurities, we must rate them on the quality of their characters, on their policies, and how well we believe they will follow through on what they promise.