Articles of Faith: Can Rick Perry’s Evangelical Appeal Reach Beyond Texas?

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Tom Williams / Roll Call

Since his entry into the GOP presidential race earlier this month, Rick Perry has rocketed to the top of national polls and attained frontrunner status. The position of the Anybody But Mitt candidate, briefly occupied by Michele Bachmann from June to early August, is now Perry’s. The man who hosted an evangelical Christian prayer-rally-slash-revival would seem to be a strong favorite with the religious conservatives who hold significant power in several early primary states. And so far, Perry is polling well among churchgoing Republicans.

For all his appeal, however, Perry has already stumbled in his handling of some social issues and in doing so, raised questions about whether the governor is in tune with the priorities of social conservatives outside Texas.

Not surprisingly, Perry’s biggest supporters among religious conservatives are in his home state. In July, Perry met with a group of evangelical leaders at the Fort Worth headquarters of televangelist James Robison. A number of his evangelical supporters, including African-American and Hispanic pastors, took part in The Response in early August. And this weekend, Perry will take a break from the campaign trail to visit with a group of evangelical heavyweights that includes Christian historian David Barton and evangelist Rick Scarborough. The meeting will take place in Fredericksburg, Texas, at the ranch of Jim Leininger, a longtime Perry donor and financial backer of efforts to ban gay marriage.

Perry would do well, however, to bring in some religious leaders from outside Texas. While the state is steeped in evangelical religion, it is also an insular political and cultural environment. As Gabriel Debenedetti pointed out pointed out in the New Republic last week, the religious conservatives who have powered Perry’s political success are a relatively small, extreme bunch. Perry has won his three elections as governor largely by capturing the nomination in the state’s GOP primary, a contest that draws roughly 4% of the state’s voting-age population. That small group of Republican voters has somewhat unusual priorities.

Take Perry’s zealous support of the 10th Amendment and state rights. Liberal critics like to mock Perry’s musings about Texas secession. But to national social conservatives, it’s not a laughing matter. Their agenda is topped by the twin goals of banning abortion and gay marriage nationally. Until Perry signed an anti-abortion pledge earlier this week, anti-abortion activists questioned whether the Texan would be willing to use federal power to restrict abortion.

Social conservative had reason to question Perry’s commitment to their agenda after New York passed legislation to allow gay marriage in that state. Perry’s initial response was fully in line with his anti-federalist orientation. “That’s New York, and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me,” he told an audience in Aspen.

Almost immediately, Perry was called on the carpet by the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, who summoned the governor to his radio program to explain his remarks. Perry clarified that “it’s fine with me that a state is using their sovereign rights to decide an issue” but “obviously gay marriage is not fine with me.” The explanation fell short of putting religious conservatives’ minds at ease.

They were also outraged in 2007 when Perry issued an executive order mandating a vaccine for HPV–which can cause cervical cancer–for girls entering sixth grade in Texas. Even though parents had the option to have their daughters opt out and refuse the vaccine, social conservatives argued that the policy would encourage sexual promiscuity. The Texas legislature agreed with them and overturned Perry’s order, but he continued to defend the policy.

As recently as this July, leading social conservatives were still concerned about the decision, with one leader telling the Christian Broadcasting Network: “The vaccine issue is not helpful, and Perry will have to address it.” The governor did, using a Romney-esque maneuver, telling a New Hampshire audience this month that he now considers the policy a “mistake.”

Finally, while many of Perry’s fellow presidential contenders have competed for the title of Most Islamophobic, Perry may face questions about his close ties to Muslim communities in Texas. In particular, Perry has forged a friendship with Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili sect in Texas, and has attended a number of Ismaili events, even laying the first brick at the groundbreaking ceremony for an Ismaili worship center in Plano in 2005. Perry has also signed off on Muslim-friendly legislation and played a role in expanding the Muslim Histories and Culture Project, which introduces Islamic history and culture curricula into public schools.

A background of cultivating Muslim support hasn’t stopped politicians like Newt Gingrich from engaging in Muslim fear-mongering. But to Perry’s credit, he has so far declined to join in that particularly unsavory GOP trend. That could serve him well if he finds himself in the position of appealing to independent voters next fall. To get to that point, however, he’ll need to convince religious conservatives that he sings from their hymnbook.

Amy Sullivan is contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.