While the U.S. Constitution guarantees that there is no religious test for elected office, there is a long tradition of American political candidates evoking religious language, such as biblical allusions or the nearly obligatory phrase, "God bless America," in public addresses. These invocations are generally crafted using the language of "civil religion" --a public form of broad-brush religiosity that has been shaped by the particularities of American history, borrowing heavily but remaining distinct from Christianity and Judaism.
But this year the GOP presidential primary has also been infused, most prominently by Texas Governor Rick Perry, with examples of sectarian religiosity that trades in the more provincial coin of white evangelical Christianity. While the advantages of speaking in such specific language in some settings are clear, overplaying a sectarian hand now may hurt candidates' ability to connect to a wider audience in the general election.
To outside observers, Perry's course may seem strange for someone who is making the case that he should be the next president of the most influential nation in the world, not only in military might but in technological and scientific innovation. Perry has repeatedly expressed doubts about both evolution (calling it "just a theory") and climate change. And during a speech at the Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University a few weeks ago, he spoke little about politics, focusing instead on a personal testimony of his own religious journey and, perhaps surprisingly, his lackluster college grades.
But there may be a method to his touting of these misgivings and mediocrity. By simultaneously confessing that his youthful dream of becoming a veterinarian was dashed by failing grades in organic chemistry, testifying to his doubts about modern science, and witnessing about his personal faith journey, Perry wedded himself to a tried and true archetype in evangelical circles: a man who is fired more by faith and reliance on God than by academic credentials or science.
It's clear that Perry's positions on evolution and climate change will resonate with white evangelical Protestants, who are far less apt than the general public to believe in either issue. For example, according to the new PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey just released this week by Public Religion Research Institute, nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) Americans believe humans and other living things have evolved over time. Among white evangelicals, however, more than six-in-ten (63 percent) believe that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and one-third of all white evangelical Protestants believe that humans were created in the last 10,000 years. Although the differences are less pronounced on the issue of climate change, evangelicals are also significantly less likely than the general public to say that the earth is getting warmer and that this is caused by human activity (31 percent vs. 45 percent respectively). White evangelicals are also more likely than the general public to believe that scientists are divided rather than in agreement on these issues.
As I wrote in a "Figuring Faith" column back in July, most Americans say it is important that a presidential candidate have strong religious beliefs. Our new findings show that Perry's invocation of sectarian religion and scientific skepticism will likely play well with both evangelicals and Tea Party members, who also share these views. But the sectarian rhetoric may spell peril for Perry in the general election, especially among independents, who are generally less religious than the general public and strongly believe both that human beings and other living things have evolved over time (61 percent) and that there is solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer (70 percent).
Looking ahead to 2012, it is not yet clear how much Perry's invocation of sectarian religion has hurt his chances among Independents in the general election, and whether he will be inclined to see the need to exchange his sectarian song sheet for a civil religion hymnbook. But if he can't, he may just find himself preaching to the choir.
The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Religion News Service. Results of the survey were based on bilingual (Spanish and English) random digit dial telephone interviews conducted between September 14, 2011 and September 18, 2011, among a random sample of 1,013 adults (301 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.0 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.