There has been a great deal of talk lately about Rick Perry's belief in God, much of it by Rick Perry.
But belief in God is not the same as following God. The Book of James illustrates that point with a message politicians (and many on the right) should pay close attention to: "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well. Be warm and well fed' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? Faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead. ... You believe that there is one God? Good. Even the demons believe that -- and shudder" (James 2:15-19).
Perry has made it clear he believes in God. He's also made it clear that one of his top political priorities is gutting government programs that help the poor and powerless whom Jesus himself said Christians should care for. Those positions might seem a bit contradictory. But Perry and his allies rationalize this disconnect between the priorities of Perry's Savior and Perry's Campaign by saying Christ's commands were meant for individual Christians, not government -- and so we should cut these government programs because Christ told Christians to care for the poor, and the Church can care for the poor much better than government.
Are you with me so far? Good, because this is normally the point where Democrats and progressives lose the argument by getting distracted by the "Church can do it better" part and focusing on that point, which then reinforces the conservative narrative that progressives think government can solve all problems. Or progressives inexplicably (yet predictably) do exactly what Perry and his allies want by belittling prayer and launching generic attacks against faith and "those" people (as Slate did), basically forcing moderate and even progressive Christians to defend folks on the right with whom they disagree against these condescending attacks from the left.
What we should be saying is that it doesn't matter whether the Church could do a better job caring for the poor or not because the Church isn't doing it. We wouldn't need Section 8 housing if we had enough Habitat homes. We wouldn't need food stamps or school lunches if we had enough soup kitchens. The way to ensure better care for the poor than government can provide is not to hobble government programs but for the Church to make those programs unnecessary. The problem is not that government is doing too much but that the Church is doing too little.
Jesus was a smart guy. The Son of God part aside, he got politics and rhetoric. When his enemies tried to trap him, Jesus didn't counter the Pharisees by saying that their laws were wrong or outdated. Instead, he simply used their own arguments and purported motives to call them to a higher purpose and truer service to God. And in so doing he exposed their hypocrisy and true motives to the people -- which brings us back to Rick Perry.
Guess how much the leader of this "Christian" movement to cut-government-help-for-the-poor-because-the-Church-should-be-doing-it gave to his church from 2007-2009 (the most recent years his tax records are available)? 1/100th of a tithe! Rick Perry gave only one one-thousandth of what he made to his church. The year he made more than $1 million, his total church giving was less than $100 (you read that right -- that's less than 1/10,000th of his income). On the other hand, in 2009 alone he deducted $15,000 in "gifts" to renovate the Governor's mansion where he lived. This is more than he gave to his churches during the last decade. And we wonder why the Church isn't able to do a better job caring for the least and last.
In the New Testament, there is only one sin that gets the divine death penalty: hypocrisy. And Rick Perry is a hypocrite teaching a bastardization of Christianity that should be anathema to most Christians ... if we expose it, and do so in a way that Middle America can relate to. Now, before some of you gleefully take Perry's hypocrisy as proof that all conservative Christians are hypocrites, the fact is that most of them do give to charity (and at higher rates than secular liberals). But that is exactly why highlighting Perry's hypocrisy on this issue can be so effective. The Christian base he is appealing to takes tithing very seriously and gives much more than Perry does despite making much less themselves.
I will leave it up to higher powers than myself to judge his soul, but if Democrats are smart, they will recognize that Perry's hypocrisy can be the undoing of his campaign. Imagine the ad with a bunch of Texas pastors making these points. This is an argument that will win in the heartland.
Final Bible lesson: Jesus taught that we would know false prophets by their fruits and that we must care for the poor and powerless. In fact, how we treat "the least of these" is the sole criterion Christ said he would use to decide who gets into heaven. The fact that Perry has dedicated his life to destroying programs that help "the least of these," instead of personally and politically acting to help them, speaks volumes. You don't pull the safety net out from under someone you care about before you have gotten them across the tightrope, all the while proclaiming constantly and loudly, "Well, somebody ought to be on the ground to catch them."
The values Perry applies to politics are those of the atheist Ayn Rand, not those of Jesus Christ. The values that guide his personal giving are also those of Ayn Rand rather than Christ's. Whether it is his political leadership or personal stewardship, if we ask "What Would Jesus Do?" the answer is the opposite of Rick Perry.
"You believe that there is one God? Good. Even the demons believe that -- and shudder."