Former Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) delivered a fiery religious speech tying his beliefs to the anti-Washington message of his presidential campaign, and seeking to tap into some of the anger and unrest among Republican primary voters. He joined a crowd of over 10,000 in Columbia, South Carolina, this weekend for a religious liberty rally on the steps of the state capitol.
The event, dubbed the “We Stand With God Pro-Family Rally,” was a unique opportunity for Perry. The former Texas governor has languished in the bottom tier of the polls, and this event provided him with a large audience of thousands of social conservative voters. Perhaps just as critical as Perry fights for supporters in a crowded Republican field of seventeen candidates: the only other of his competitors present was fellow Texan Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
When Perry last ran for president during the 2012 election, he was viewed as not just a conservative alternative to former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), but as one of the most conservative candidates out of the entire field. Perry’s positions on core conservative issues have not wavered since he last ran, but he has found himself eclipsed by Cruz among many tea party conservatives. Other candidates such as former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) compete with Perry for the social conservative voters. And, of course, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump seems to have captured the attention of voters frustrated with the Washington establishment.
South Carolina, the first primary in the South, is absolutely critical to Perry’s campaign strategy. Hoping to connect to the state’s social conservative voters, he has invested a lot of time visiting there and staffed up early. The campaign hit a rough patch earlier this month when news broke that they were freezing staff pay, but were able to start resuming pay last week, starting with, not the Austin, Texas headquarters, but South Carolina and Iowa.
Many religious conservatives disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year allowing gay marriage, and are anxious that their religious beliefs will open the door for them to be harassed in their personal or professional lives. News stories about Christian bakers being run out of business for refusing to participate in gay weddings have made many people nervous about becoming targets themselves.
Accordingly, Perry’s strategy for this speech was fairly clear: re-establish his social conservative bona fides with religious voters in South Carolina, and reassure frustrated Republicans that he shares their anger with the Washington establishment.
Perry displayed high spirits from the beginning of his remarks, first thanking the choir standing behind him — “Man, y’all are awesome! You’re awesome!” — before promising the audience that they would “have a little bit of a history lesson here today.”
“I think it’s important to understand where we’ve been in this country,” said Perry, “why we find ourselves at this extraordinary place and time.” He quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, who had observed in his native France that he had “almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions,” but when he visited America, he saw those forces “were intimately united and they reigned in common over the same country.”
“Religion in America,” continued Perry, still quoting Tocqueville, “must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions, for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.” Religion was “part of the genius of America and its “influence was “powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the Earth.”
Tocqueville, said Perry, “saw the beauty of America, he saw the truth of America. He said America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Less than 200 years after Tocqueville visited, Perry said, we see an “assault on those institutions” that the Frenchman had so highly praised.
Religious liberty is under attack in America today, said Perry, and “the Supreme Court is out of control,” as the audience cheered in agreement. There is “fear in our churches and our religious schools, because we have a government that is out of control.”
Perry drew an analogy directly with Jesus Christ, illustrating how the anger and frustration people feel about Washington was similar to Jesus’ anger with the money changers at the temple.
“Early in the ministry of Jesus Christ, He saw corruption in the temple, and He got angry about it and He did something about it,” said Perry. “He went in there and He overturned the tables of the money changers.”
“He saw corruption, just like today we need somebody that’s got the backbone to go to Washington, D.C.,” Perry continued, raising his voice and pumping his fist for emphasis, “and turn over the tables of the money changers, of the corruption, of the greed, that we see in Washington, D.C. And the question is, will you join me in that effort?”
“Jesus was angry. I’m angry. I hope you’re angry,” said Perry, as the audience yelled back in agreement. “It’s OK to be angry…. Jesus was angry because He saw sin, He saw that corruption, He saw society’s wrongs overcoming principles, and that’s what we see today.”
Taking a quieter, more somber tone, Perry told the audience that he knew that “America longs for a leader who is also humble…full of humility…someone who understands that public service is about working for you,” clearly hoping they would view him in that light.
“I ask you to stand with America, stand for these liberties, stand with these Biblical values that America has been founded upon,” shouted Perry in yet another fiery moment. “Stand with God!”
Perry then turned to the “sacrificial blood” of patriots who had founded this country and fought around the world for freedom, quoting John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down your life for your friend.” He described taking his father, a World War II veteran, to visit the American cemetery at Omaha beach, “an incredibly powerful place” where 9,000 Americans are buried.
“Nine thousand headstones, white crosses and Stars of David, of young Americans who made the most powerful sacrifice, an eternal sacrifice for freedom,” said Perry. “Our country was founded on that type of sacrificial love.”
Of those 9,000 headstones, Perry told how they were all facing West, to the America that they had loved, and how he believed they were there watching us “in silent judgment.”
“We have to ask ourselves, have we lived up to their sacrifice? Have we earned their respect?” asked Perry. “What are you willing to die for? What are you willing to sacrifice for?”
“Are you ready to truly go sacrifice?” Perry continued. “We can leave the steps of this state Capitol. We can start forward. We can be a part of a movement that will go all across this country. This nation can be renewed. We can have revival in this country again.”
“Are you ready?” Perry called to the audience. “Onward, Christian soldiers! God bless you and thank you all for coming out here and being with us today! Bless you!”
Perry hugged the event organizer and thanked him, throwing one last “Thank you! Y’all are awesome!” at the choir as he walked off the stage.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.