CHARLES CITY, Iowa — Gov. Rick Perry's Christian faith was on display Sunday morning as he warned churchgoers not to be intimidated by the “politically correct police.”
His message to the congregation was in keeping both with his recent remarks on the campaign trail and with ads he’s been airing around the state.
Earlier this month, before starting his Iowa bus tour, Perry began a strong push to attract conservative Christian voters by airing an ad that sparked backlash for its anti-gay message. In it, Perry said, “there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
Perry has not backed down from the ad. At multiple stops on the tour, he has told voters he hopes they’ve seen it. Though his focus has been less on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” (in fact, it has yet to come up) and more on the “war on religion” allegedly being waged by President Obama’s administration and “activist judges,” which he has also referred to as “a legislator in a robe.”
Perry attended church in two different cities Sunday morning and had two very different experiences. At the first, Clear Lake Evangelical Free Church in Clear Lake, he was treated to a flashy, contemporary multimedia presentation celebrating the Christmas season, but his presence was not recognized during the service by church leaders. At the second, First Wesleyan Church in Charles City, where young children staged a much lower-tech birthday party for Jesus, Perry's presence was heralded.
Pastor Dennis Bachman cited Perry's initiation of The Response, a prayer rally in Houston this summer that preceded his presidential bid, as a particularly inspiring moment.
"My hope this morning is that all of us would have the courage [to pray] even when it is unpopular," Bachman said.
The governor had ended up at First Wesleyan Church, Bachman said, because the pastor had called the campaign hoping to find out when Perry would be in town so that he could meet him. It turned out they were looking for a place to address a congregation.
In his remarks, similar to those he's offered at other churches in Iowa, Perry recalled how his faith was renewed at age 27, when he realized he had, as he put it, "a hole" in his heart.
"It's a God-shaped hole in your heart and it can only be filled by Jesus Christ," Perry told the dozens in attendance.
Using one of his favorite Bible verses to quote on the stump (Isaiah 6:8: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"), Perry then moved into political mode.
"You are Biblically charged to take your values into the public arena," he said, noting that someone's values will "decide the issues of the day."
"The question is, whose values?" Perry said, warning against being intimidated by what he referred to as "the politically correct police."
After the service, Bachman said of Perry, “I couldn’t have asked for anything better. He was very comfortable.”
That might be because the religious riff is also an integral part of the stump speeches Perry has been delivering around the state on his bus tour.
At multiple stops, he has addressed young members of the crowd and bemoaned the forces of political correctness that would prevent them from being able to pray in schools.
Perry told reporters that people of faith need to be "right there smack dab in the middle of" public life. He said, “Faith is part of what this country is founded upon, and I think we’ve drifted away from that too far.”
Dianne Blackburn, a member of First Wesleyan Church, said she appreciated Perry’s message. “I like that he’s willing to stand up for his faith,” she said.
But as with many of the Iowans at these stops along the tour, the question is: Did she like it enough? Even after hearing Perry speak, Blackburn said she still hasn’t decided which candidate she plans to support in the caucuses on Jan. 3.
“There are just too many of them!” she said, conceding that she would probably make a day-of decision.