Why Rick Perry’s New Ads Are Wrong on Religion–And Obama

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For a swaggering Texas cowboy, Rick Perry certainly does have a serious victim complex. In two different campaign ads released in Iowa this week, the Texas governor defends his faith from enemies named and unnamed. “I’m not ashamed to talk about my faith,” he says in the first spot. “Some liberals say that faith is a sign of weakness. Well, they’re wrong.” In the second ad, titled “Strong,” Perry bravely comes out as a follower of Christ. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” he says, before vowing that “as President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Perry’s life in Texas has been similar to that of the character Truman in “The Truman Show,” surrounded by handlers who warned him not to venture into the outside world where people wouldn’t understand or accept his faith. Remember, back in October when Perry first started to fade, his wife Anita said that he was being “brutalized” by his opponents “and our own party…because of his faith.”

(PHOTOS: Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)

It takes an unusual perspective to see the modern Republican Party as an institution that penalizes politicians for being religious. Just as it takes an unusual perspective to view the United States as a country in which members of the majority faith are consistently persecuted and denied rights. Perry may embody the sense of victimhood shared by many social conservatives, but he also knows that appealing to it may represent his only chance of staying alive in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. So he is striding guns blazing into the culture wars, with a message that Interfaith Alliance president C. Welton Gaddy calls “a new low…in the manipulation of religion for partisan political advantage.”

Indeed, Perry’s new campaign theme makes the big religion hubbub of the 2008 primaries seem downright quaint. Four years ago, Mike Huckabee found himself on the “Today” show, insisting that he did not intentionally film a Christmas message in front of a bookshelf that in certain light seemed to look like a cross. Perry would never employ such a subtle gesture. His ads are as unambiguous in their religious content as they are loose with their facts and insinuations.

Let’s start with Perry’s statement that he’s not ashamed to “admit” that he’s a Christian. We’ll set aside the suggestion that there is typically some barrier that discourages politicians from being open about their religious affiliation, because that’s clearly absurd. The more relevant charge underlying Perry’s remark is that Barack Obama won’t talk about his faith. Anyone who has paid attention to Obama’s speeches and language would have to concede that the charge is false. Obama’s remarks at the White House Easter prayer breakfast this year–in which he spoke of Jesus’ “unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection”–are arguably the most explicitly Christian that any President has uttered at an official White House event. Similarly, before the lighting of the National Christmas Tree last week, Obama spoke about the Christmas story and the teaching “at the heart of my Christian faith.”

(MORE: The Iowa Ad War Gets Religious)

Then there is Perry’s assertion that while gays can serve openly in the military, “our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” That will come as news to the thousands–possibly millions–of public students who participate in Secret Santa exchanges and who sing Christmas songs at December music concerts. Likewise, students can and do pray in school. What is unconstitutional is for teachers to lead children in prayer or require students to practice a religious tradition, whether Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or any other faith.

But most flagrant is Perry’s reference to “Obama’s war on religion” without evidence or explanation. He leaves the strong impression that it is Obama’s administration–instead of Supreme Court decisions from the 1960s–that took school-sanctioned prayer and Bible-reading out of public schools. It is telling that Perry can assume his intended audience in Iowa living rooms will need no elaboration or convincing that there is indeed a war on religion.

Social conservatives have had a hard time providing substance for that charge, however, because many of their most dire predictions about a Democratic presidency simply haven’t come true. Obama hasn’t taken away their guns, he hasn’t started a race war, and–despite mailings distributed by the RNC in the 2004 campaign–godless “liberals” have not banned the Bible.

In fact, Obama has confounded conservative expectations by retaining and expanding the faith-based initiative started by George W. Bush. His refusal to overturn the executive order allowing faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring for positions paid for by government funding has frustrated and infuriated his supporters on the left. Just this week, a coalition of religious and civil rights organizations sent letters to the heads of faith-based offices in 13 federal agencies in an attempt to force the administration to reveal how it deals with the hiring issue on the “case-by-case” basis White House officials have claimed to apply.

Even those reliable boogeymen activist judges have been quiet lately. So social conservatives were thrilled earlier this fall when the Catholic bishops’ conference claimed that the administration was targeting Catholics. Perry picked up on this argument in an interview on CNN’s “The Situation Room” this week. “When you talk to the bishops of the Catholic Church, there is clearly an agenda by this administration to go after those Catholic charities that are offering health care, doing work or trafficking of individuals,” Perry said. “The administration is clearly sending messages to people of faith and organizations of faith that we’re not going to support you with federal dollars.”

Presumably, Perry did not mean to say that Catholic charities are involved in human trafficking. But the rest of his statement was just as wrong. Perry’s vague reference was to a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services not to renew a grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services that would have supported their work with victims of sex trafficking. That decision has been controversial. But it is hardly a “message to…organizations of faith that we’re not going to support you with federal dollars.” In the past two fiscal years, the federal government gave more than $1.5 billion in funds just to Catholic organizations. Migration and Refugee Services, which was denied a portion of a $4.5 million grant, has received an average of $29 million in each of the last three years to support its other activities.

When it comes to cultural warfare, however, facts are beside the point. In Perry’s second campaign ad this week, he vowed to “fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.” During this time of year, conservatives tend to argue that those “attacks” take the form of secularizing the day commemorating the birth of Christ, substituting the word “holiday” for “Christmas.” Yet as CNN reported on Thursday, Perry released a holiday statement just last year that referenced the “holiday season,” but made no mention of Christmas, a practice he has maintained going back to 1992. His fellow Republican combatant in the culture wars, Newt Gingrich, was influential in a decision to call the official congressional Christmas tree a “holiday tree” during his speakership, according to Politico.

It would be easy to dismiss Perry’s message as just a typical appeal to social conservatives or the desperate strategy of a candidate who may have slipped out of contention. But this is new. The casualness with which Perry tosses off the charge about “Obama’s war on religion” is at odds with how corrosive the accusation really is. It encourages citizens to turn against one another in a way that conservatives would denounce as class warfare if the subject were economics. That leaves conservatives with a choice: they can denounce Perry’s ads, or explain why they tolerate such divisiveness when the subject is people’s faith.

Amy Sullivan is a 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 TIME.com every Friday.