Tom Junod | Esquire | September 7 2011
Rick Perry is a Christian. It does us no good to ask, as Christopher Hitchens did last week, if he really believes what he says he believes; better to take him at his word, for then we can hold him to it. That is, we can see if he's a Christian not only by word, but by deed — if he is Christian by the proclaimed standards of Christianity.
Of course, Perry is very much a Christian by word. He is not only a professing Christian; he is a professional Christian, whose profession of Christian faith at a mass prayer rally in Houston served as prelude to his presidential campaign. Now, there are Christians who might regard as repugnant a man engaging in public prayer for the purpose of indicating his designs on power, but the American evangelical Christians Perry was courting are not among them. These are Christians who have made their peace with power; who have made their peace with wealth; and who have made their peace with war — who have, indeed, adapted themselves to the needs of a belligerent nation as surely as their ancient ancestors made their peace, in the form of Catholicism, to the needs of Rome. American evangelical Christianity is a mutant form of Christianity, in the sense that it is an evolved form of Christianity, in the sense that it has exchanged the nearly impossible terms that Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount with terms that are much more favorable for aggressive growth and convenient for a healthy rate of return.
So it is no use applying the old "What Would Jesus Do?" standard to Rick Perry, for Perry belongs to a church that put aside that standard long ago. Would Jesus walk around in $2000 worth of hand-tooled boots? Would Jesus brag about jogging while "packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets?" Would Jesus balance his budget by cutting funds to education? Would Jesus reject all clams of science except the "science" of raising funds through patronage? These questions are absurd, not only because they're anachronistic, but also because they have nothing to do with American evangelical Christianity in theory or practice. Rick Perry can with clear conscience call himself a Christian because he has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and has as a consequence rejected the moral imperative of progressive taxation, the factual basis of evolution and global warming, and the extension of the Republican mantra of "personal freedom" into the realm of marriage. That the Jesus of the Gospels is notably forgiving in regard to sexual sins and notably unforgiving in regard to economic ones matters little; the Jesus of American evangelical Christianity has it the other way around, and that is the Jesus Rick Perry — along with millions of other Americans — has elected to follow.
Indeed, by the terms of the faith he professes, Perry might even be able to reconcile his Christianity with his enthusiastic application of the death penalty, despite the apparent contradiction of a religion created in emulation of history's most notable executionee giving its ultimate blessing to the executioner. After all, when American evangelical Christianity takes a New Testament position on the defense of "innocent" — i.e., unborn — life, it is reserving for itself the right to take an Old Testament position on the guilty kind, with the result that a religion that preaches from the pulpit against the expansion of state power in the form of Obamacare countenances it in the form of lethal injection. Although he has signed death warrants for 200 men; although like his predecessor in Austin he lacks the quality of mercy; although he has overruled even the rare recommendations of clemency from his hand-picked clemency board; although he is, on the face of it, that most un-Christian of things, a governor with a black hood, he can always say that he is following the biblical charge of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's, and of fulfilling the law.
But what if he signed the death warrant for an innocent man? This is a biblical offense, no matter how you cut it. American evangelical Christians often protest the lack of absolutes in American morality — the soft-peddling of the language of sin in favor of the language of "mistakes." Well, if Perry permitted and saw through the execution of an innocent man, would that be a mistake, or would that be a sin? If a mistake, it would put into question the morality of the Texas death penalty apparatus; if a sin, it would question the morality of Rick Perry. If a sin, it would fall to Perry, as a Christian, to confess it, and ask forgiveness for it. If a sin, and if Perry's Christianity is anything but a campaign promise, he would have to welcome a reckoning — or at least a public examination that would decide whether the sin in question was committed by the man he put to death or by the state he governs.
And this is where Perry fails as a Christian, by any Christian standard. Christianity does not exist for the innocent; it exists for the guilty — for the hope that the guilty may be redeemed. But Rick Perry does not live for that hope, either for the condemned or for himself. Seven years ago, a man named Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for lighting the fire that killed his three children. His is a famous case, the subject of a documentary, a Frontline report, and a New Yorker article by David Grann that all ably detailed the wishful thinking and willful misinterpretations of the arson investigators who testified for the prosecution. The evidence that landed Willingham in the death chamber has never been able to hold up under scrutiny, and activists opposed to the death penalty have offered its flaws as proof that the death penalty can never be applied without the possibility of error. And, of course, the application of the death penalty with the possibility of error is a grotesquerie, a moral monstrosity that has no place in a putatively "Christian nation."
More to the point, it has no place in the presidential campaign of a putatively "Christian president" like Rick Perry.
And here's the thing: Perry knows this. We are not here to retry the Willingham case; it is too late for that, and the story has been told and retold elsewhere. We are here to examine Perry's personal response to the possibility of a glitch in the vast impersonal apparatus of state-sponsored death, and to examine it within a Christian framework. Christianity is a personal religion — a religion in which personal guilt is expunged by a personal relationship with a savior who promises personal salvation. At the same time, it is a religion with a powerfully public dimension, with public declarations of sinfulness followed by public cleansings. There is no indication that Rick Perry has ever grappled with the questions raised by Willingham's execution in a private way, or, for that matter, been troubled by a moment of private scruple. But he has dealt with those questions in a public way, and it was the most un-Christian way imaginable. For what he did was dismiss the possibility that a public reckoning could ever be anything but political, and prevent the public reckoning from ever going public.
Here are the facts: In 2005, the Texas Legislature, in response to persistent scandal erupting from the crime lab in the city of Houston, created the Texas Forensic Science Commission to provide public oversight and investigate claims of forensic misconduct. The Legislature, however, neglected to fund or empower it until 2007, when it finally responded to the entreaties of lawyers around the State, and also promoted one of the Commission's most persistent advocates, Austin defense attorney Sam Bassett (left), from commissioner to chairman. In 2008, the Commission held a meeting to determine what cases to investigate, and decided to look into the complaint raised by the Innocence Project about the conviction of Todd Willingham. According to Bassett, who spoke recently to The Politics Blog, the attorney general of Texas was present at the meeting, and gave his approval to the investigation. But when the Commission hired an independent investigator to examine the arson investigation upon which Willingham's execution was predicated, Bassett says that he was called into the Governor's office and "read the riot act" by Perry's lawyers. "I was told that I did not have jurisdiction to investigate the case, which was odd, since the Attorney General was at the meeting where we decided to go ahead with the investigation."
Bassett reviewed the law that created the Commission, and decided to go ahead with the investigation despite the Governor's opposition. A year later, the independent investigator completed his investigation and found that not only did the arson investigators in the Willingham case fail to meet current scientific standards, it failed to meet the standards that were in place at the time the investigation began in 1991. Indeed, the independent investigator concluded that there was no scientific basis for Willingham's conviction, and in September 2009, Bassett moved to a hold a public hearing about the case. Days before the hearing was convened, he says he received a call from Rick Perry's spokeswoman. His term had expired, and because he "served at the governor's pleasure," he was not being reappointed. "I was told the governor had decided to 'go in a different direction,'" Bassett says.
The "different direction" amounted to this: the appointment of a Republican prosecutor in the place of Bassett, a Democrat; a procedural review in the place of the public hearing, followed by an investigation of whether the Commission had the power to investigate the Willingham case; and a report by the Attorney General that overruled his office's original stance and concluded that the Commission had the power to recommend forensic standards in the present but not to investigate whether those standards were violated in the past. In other words, the state of Texas concerned itself with legalisms, but avoided facing the legal question of whether it had put to death an innocent man.
Once again, the controversy surrounding Rick Perry's efforts to impede an investigation into the legal basis for his state's penchant for lethal justice has been extensively reported and written about elsewhere. What we are concerned about here is how his efforts to impede the investigation reflect on his Christianity. From his first-hand experience with the Texas governor, Sam Bassett has concluded that Rick Perry is "authoritarian." Of course, this does not impeach Perry's commitment to his beliefs, since one of the most curious aspects of American evangelical Christianity is its curious relationship with state power. American evangelical Christianity is suspicious of state power in its rhetoric but respectful and nearly worshipful of state power in style and practice, thrilling at the prospect of an avowed ass-kicker like Rick Perry becoming president as an avowed Christian. It loves power when it has power, which makes it no different from most political movements.
But the question remains: Should a Christian politician like Rick Perry also be held to the standards of Christian conscience? And if he has failed to meet those standards, should he get a pass when he incorporates his Christianity into his campaign? The question of guilt and innocence as it pertains to the Texas death chamber is not merely a legal matter, much less a political one; it is a moral matter that is close to the heart of the Christian cause. That Rick Perry has done everything within his power to duck the question reveals a man who either does not have the courage of his convictions, or who only understands convictions that are friendly to the cause of his own ambition.
What is chilling about Rick Perry is not simply that the same man who ended a public investigation into the innocence or guilt of Todd Willingham organized a huge spectacle of public prayer; it's that he ended the Willingham investigation and organized the spectacle of public prayer for the same reason, which was and is to run for president.
Is it what Jesus would do?
How about Pilate?