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Perry And The Evangelical Vote

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas, TX – Conservative, Christian voters will be important to Governor Rick Perry if he wants to win the Republican Presidential nomination. Yet Perry's campaign has been slow to answer questions about his specific religious beliefs. KERA's Shelley Kofler takes a look at some of the questions so-called Evangelical voters will be asking.

One of the first things conservative, Christian voters might want to know is whether Rick Perry is still a Methodist who believes in United Methodist doctrine. Or whether his beliefs are more in line with the socially conservative ministers he joined on stage during the recent day of prayer called, "The Response."

Perry / August 6: In these difficult times Father we pray for our President. That you would impart your wisdom up on him, that you would guard his family.

Perry organized the event at Houston's Reliant Stadium. It included self-described Evangelical ministers, some of whom have condemned homosexuals and Catholics.

Methodist ministers say they weren't invited to be part of the program.

Perry, however, grew up as a Methodist. And since the 1990's he's been a member of the Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, the same church attended by George W. Bush when he was Governor.

In the fall of 2007, Perry and his family moved to a private estate while the Governor's mansion underwent renovations then restoration after a fire.

Perry's campaign says that's when the Governor began attending a mega church closer to his new residence. Lake Hills Church identifies itself as Evangelical. Its pastor was ordained by the socially conservative Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Some Methodists, by the way, take exception to conservative Christians claiming the Evangelical banner. Methodist scholars say they're Evangelicals, too.

Lawrence: Evangelical literally means preaching or speaking or proclaiming good news.

William Lawrence is dean of Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology.

Lawrence: What happened to the word in the 1970's is that it began to be hijacked by political interests particularly conservative and right wing interests who wanted to co-op the word Evangelical and apply it not to a set of theological issues but rather to a political set of issues.

And the political issues that have come to identify today's Evangelical voters are often at odds with Methodism.

Evangelical religious conservatives almost universally oppose abortion. Lawrence says United Methodists recognize access to safe, legal abortions as an important social principle.

Many religious conservatives believe in Biblical inerrancy, that the Bible is God's own words presented to humans. Methodists don't believe that.

Many senior Methodist pastors are women. Some religious conservatives believe only men should hold top church.

Vander Plaats: We do want to know what their understanding of the Bible is.

That's Bob Vander Plaats. He's President of the Family Leader, one of the most influential Christian conservative groups in Iowa. Vander Plaats' support of Mike Huckabee in 2008 is credited with helping Huckabee win Iowa's Republican caucus.

What Perry believes about sensitive social and religious issues could determine whether he gets Vander Plaats' support this time and that could determine how Perry finishes in Iowa, the first Presidential contest.

Vander Plaats: Our mission at the Family Leader is to strengthen families. We work very closely with the churches. We provide resources to pastors and family leadership. We're definitely going to want to know about the sanctity of human life. We're going to want to know his view on marriage. We're probably going to want him to clear up his comment in Aspen, Colorado related to New York and its passage of same sex marriage.

What Perry said is that even though he opposes gay marriage it's OK that New York approved it because Perry supports state rights.

Vander Plaats: He's a tenth amendment guy and I understand that. However there are some things that transcend state rights. States should never have the right in our opinion to do a wrong.

On the other hand, Vander Plaats likes what Perry recently said about evolution being just a theory and that he supports teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools.

Vander Plaats: We believe as Rick Perry stated (on August 17) that intelligent design ought to be presented alongside of evolution. That's where we stand. In fact I was pretty comfortable with Rick Perry's answer.

SMU's Bill Lawrence says that view definitely runs afoul of the Methodist principles with which Perry grew up.

Lawrence: When inquiry through scientific research leads to the clear conclusions that evolution is a fact- it's not an idea, it's not a fantasy, it's not a myth, it's not a political theory-it is real. Everybody who is engaged in higher education including in Methodist universities accept that as a basic principle.

So is Perry now a former Methodist who has abandoned that church; a Methodist who supports some of the Methodist principles with which he grew up while disagreeing with others; or something else in terms of religious conviction? Does Perry call himself an Evangelical?

Perry has often spoken out against abortion and gay marriage. He's rejected evolution as science. But his campaign has avoided answering other questions that might clarify Perry's deeper religious views.

Vander Plaats in Iowa says whether Perry has changed churches doesn't bother him, but he does want to know what Perry truly believes.

Southern Methodist University's William Lawrence says there's room for Perry in the Methodist Church even if he disagrees with theology. But Lawrence is bothered by how Perry has handled the faith issue. He contrasts Perry with another socially conservative Methodist who became President.

Lawrence: When George W. Bush ran for President he actually ran as a Methodist. When he was Governor he remained an active attendee of a Methodist church in Austin. When he went to the White House he stayed in touch with his Methodist church here in Dallas. Mr. Bush is to be credited with never running away from the choice he made which is to affiliate with the United Methodist Church. That's an important distinction between his approach to his faith journey and what some of the other candidates may be doing.

Reporter: Rick Perry?

Lawrence: Perhaps, Rick Perry.

Audio-Bob Vander Plaats, President of the Family Leader in Iowa:

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Audio-William Lawrence, Dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, Discusses the Politics of Evangelicals:

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Email Shelley Kofler