Behind the Scenes, Christian Right Leaders Rally Behind Rick Perry

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Lee Celano / Reuters

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 18, 2011.

Correction appended.

In early June, TIME has learned, a group of prominent figures on the Christian Right held a conference call to discuss their dissatisfaction with the current GOP presidential field, and agreed that Rick Perry would be their preferred candidate if he entered the race. Among those on the call were David Barton, the Texas activist and go-to historian for the Christian Right and John Hagee, the controversial San Antonio pastor whose endorsement John McCain rejected in 2008.

Religious conservatives have often played a substantial role in choosing past Republican nominees, but leaders on the Christian Right have been conspicuously quiet so far in this campaign season. Privately, however, they are enthusiastic about Perry and are encouraging the Texas governor to throw his ten-gallon hat into the ring.

Perry’s favor with the Christian Right is relatively new, and he is their candidate of choice as much by default as anything. Many leaders had hoped that Mike Huckabee would make a second run for the nomination and give them a fellow religious conservative (and a Southerner) to support. When Huckabee chose to sit out the race and Haley Barbour stepped aside as well, some Christian Right bigwigs considered throwing their support behind Newt Gingrich.

The former Speaker has made religious freedom for Christians his signature issue over the past few years. And more importantly, Gingrich needs religious conservatives more than they need him — he might feel indebted to that constituency if he won, the thinking went. But as Gingrich’s campaign operation seems to have shrunk to a few interns and wife Callista’s Twitter feed, alarmed Christian Right leaders have sought to find a new–preferably electable–candidate to carry the social conservative banner.

What’s wrong with the existing crop of candidates? Tim Pawlenty has the support of evangelical leaders outside the Christian Right–in a recent survey of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals, 45% named Pawlenty as their preferred GOP nominee. However, that impressive result may have something to do with the fact that the NAE president, Leith Anderson, is Pawlenty’s pastor and may not be representative of broader evangelical opinion. Mitt Romney ran into problems with evangelicals in 2008 because of his Mormon faith, and his recent refusal to sign an anti-abortion organization’s campaign pledge did nothing to win over his critics.

Meanwhile, no one questions the social conservative credentials of Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann. But Santorum’s poll numbers in Iowa are smaller than the number of children he has. And while Bachmann has been on a hot streak since the first candidate’s debate, Christian Right leaders continue to be far less willing to embrace her (or Sarah Palin, for that matter) than the rank-and-file or more secular politicos. Is that sexism at work? Possibly. Maybe even probably. But geography is an important factor as well. Many Christian Right leaders think the GOP primary schedule favors a Southern candidate. And southern Minnesota does not count.

So, come on down, Rick Perry! He may be the favorite by default, but the Texas governor is also a terrific match for the Christian Right. Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches recently outlined Perry’s social conservative bona fides and they’re impressive:

  • Signed a gay marriage ban into law at a Christian school in Fort Worth with evangelical heavyweights Tony Perkins (Family Research Council), Rod Parsley (Ohio mega-church pastor), and Don Wildmon (American Family Association) in attendance
  • The Sunday before his 2006 re-election, Perry attended Cornerstone Church and sat by the side of controversial pastor John Hagee (in 2008, John McCain had to reject Hagee’s endorsement after critics pointed out the pastor’s many extreme statements, including calling the Catholic Church “the whore of Babylon”)
  • Supported and was a primary beneficiary of the Texas Restoration Project, an effort to increase the electoral involvement of conservative pastors

All of this, however, pales beside Perry’s current project–a Christian all-day prayer event called “The Response” on August 6 in Houston. The governor is sponsoring the event along with the American Family Association, which is footing the estimated $1.5 million tab for the gathering. The Response is intended for Christians only, although one spokesman said that if people of other faiths attend, he hopes they will see the light and “seek out the living Christ” for their lives.

Perry has been doing a lot of praying in the past year. On the morning of his inauguration to a new term as governor, he appeared at a prayer breakfast attended by some Christian Right heavyweights who have been following the Texan’s activities on their behalf. “People flew in from across the country for this,” said one participant. The breakfast was organized by David Lane, an activist from California who has set up “Pastor Policy Briefings” in at least 14 states over the past several years that have been attended by nearly 10,000 pastors. Doug Wead, a conservative historian who is close to the Bush family, described Lane this way on his blog: “Lane is the mysterious, behind the scenes, evangelical kingmaker who stormed into Iowa in 2008 and tilted the whole thing from Romney to Huckabee.”

Lane is the man to have on your team if you want to organize religious conservatives to support your campaign. And he’s the one behind that June conference call in which key players of the Christian Right decided to do just that for Rick Perry.

Correction: This article originally listed Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council as a participant on the David Lane-organized conference call. Perkins says he has not participated in any conference calls regarding Governor Rick Perry.

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