Is Rick Perry a Theocrat?


Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank says Rick Perry "is no libertarian"; he is a "theocrat." Milbank is certainly right about that first part (see, e.g., this debunking of the Texas governor's small-government bona fides by the Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas); I'm not so sure about the second part. I too am concerned about how Perry's religious views (or, more to the point, his pandering to the Christian right) might be manifested in public policy. But Perry offers secular arguments for, say, constitutional amendments banning abortion and gay marriage; he does not expect his view of what God wants to be decisive. If Perry is a theocrat simply because his religion influences the moral views that in turn shape his public policy positions, so is any progressive whose political agenda reflects religiously informed values such as peace, responsibility to one's fellow man, or stewardship of the earth.

Furthermore, the evidence that Milbank cites to show that Perry is a theocrat includes positions that do not involve the use of force to impose religious values. Perry, for example, thinks the Boy Scouts, as a private organization, should be free to discriminate based on sexual orientation. So do I; that is in fact the libertarian position, based on property rights, freedom of contract, and freedom of association. Perry likewise argues that gay activists "must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior." I would go along with that too, provided he is talking about private action, as opposed to the way government treats people. (Given Perry's position on gay marriage, I suspect he conflates the two.) Similarly, Perry's suspicion of "human rights commissions," cited by Milbank as another example of his theocratic views, is fully justified by the threat they often pose to civil liberties. Milbank also notes Perry's views on evolution, homosexuality, Jesus Christ's sin-redeeming abilities, and the shortcomings of the typical university education. But he does not show how those views are relevant to assessing Perry's merits as a presidential candidate.

Like Milbank, I find Perry's conspicuous religiosity a bit unseemly—especially when he blithely insists that all Americans, regardless of their religion or lack of it, "must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us." But those who think Perry's religious beliefs are relevant to his presidential qualifications (a group that seems to include Perry himself) need to make a stronger case. Supporting freedom of association for the Boy Scouts or freedom of speech for opponents of homosexuality hardly makes you a theocrat.

As far as I can tell, by the way, no one is calling Perry a libertarian. The statement to which Milbank objected was Post reporter Perry Bacon's claim that a Perry victory "would cement the Republican Party's shift away from Bush's approach to a more libertarian, anti-government GOP." That much seems possible. After all, you can be more libertarian than George W. Bush without being very libertarian at all. So far it seems that Perry is about as good as Bush on the few issues (immigration, for example) where Bush was pretty good, no worse than Bush in any major way (unless I've missed it; let me know), and substantially better rhetorically, eschewing "compassionate" conservatism and championing federalism, even in the area of drug policy. If there is any substance at all to Perry's Tea Party–pleasing emphasis on fiscal conservatism, Bacon's prediction could turn out to be accurate.