Church and Statecraft

Rick Perry and Tony Sanchez have one thing in common: When it comes to politics, each disagrees with the official views of his religion.

August 2002By Comments

BRIGHT IDEA: For candidates, politics outshines religion.
Illustration by Martha Rich

WHEN I ASKED THE TWO candidates for governor if I could attend church with them to explore the link between faith and politics in their lives, Tony Sanchez agreed but Rick Perry declined. Faith, after all, is one of the last truly personal areas of American life, and Perry felt my going to church with him was too great an intrusion. He did agree to talk about his faith in an interview. I began by asking the governor to describe the origins of his faith. The question seemed to throw him off momentarily, but then he found a foothold in his memory, one of a Sunday morning long ago in a small Methodist church in the West Texas town of Haskell. “I was just a little kid,” recalled Perry. “Somebody in the class had a daddy who was a second-generation Aggie. I remember the teacher asked me if I wanted to be a Christian, and I said, ‘Nope, I do not. I want to be an Aggie.'” He laughed nervously.

Both Republican Perry and Democrat Sanchez have good reason to be uneasy about the link between politics and religion these days. While politicians have always courted specific religious constituencies, and churches have always had their own political agendas, the issues involving religion and politics have seldom been as direct or as controversial as they are today. The overlap of the domains of Caesar and God can produce some startling results. The Dallas Morning News reported that one of the most popular bumper stickers at the Republican state convention this summer read, “G.O.P.: God’s Official Party”—a reminder of the enormous influence wielded by the Christian Coalition and other religious-right groups in the Republican party. The convention adopted a platform that mentioned God and faith no fewer than twelve times and called the United States a “Christian nation.” A week later the Democratic state convention delegates found it necessary to debate for hours whether to use the phrase “God-given potential” in their platform before ultimately deciding that they dare not completely exclude the language of faith from their party’s statement of principles. Then, in late June, Bishop Edmond Carmody of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi barred Sanchez and John Sharp, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, from speaking from the pulpits of churches in the diocese because the two politicians, both Catholics, support a woman’s right to have an abortion.

The conflict between Sanchez and the Catholic Church highlights the distinction between faith and religion. Faith is personal. It can affect what a politician believes about a variety of public issues and private habits—abortion, capital punishment, the legal availability of alcohol, and sexual preference, for instance. Religion is organized and official. Religions often have political positions, but when it comes to influencing politicians, they tend to be less effective than faith.

If Sanchez is elected, he would be the first Catholic to lead Texas since Sam Houston. However, Texas was still a part of Mexico when Houston arrived here in 1832, at a time when Mexican law required all its citizens to declare themselves Catholics. He was never a practicing Catholic, though, and later in life became a Baptist. Sanchez, on the other hand, is the real thing. He goes to mass every Sunday and to confession once a month. He prays the rosary every morning during his two-and-a-half-mile walk on his 13,000-acre ranch outside Laredo. Wherever he travels in Texas, devout Catholic women, mostly Hispanics, silently press prayer cards into his hands, a sign that they are praying for him. He carries them in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. The hacienda he built on his ranch has its own private chapel, a small, solemn room made of stone, a place where, Sanchez said, “I find a lot of peace and feel the most at home in the world.”

Sanchez agreed to let me go to church with him. We met one Sunday morning in downtown Laredo in the plaza in front of St. Agustín Cathedral. Bells in the high tower called people to the nine-thirty mass. Sanchez pointed to a bronze plaque in the plaza marking the date in 1755 when Tomás Sanchez, his forebear seven generations removed, founded the city. For Sanchez, the plaque is cause to remember not only a physical journey but also a spiritual one. “Before Tomás came to this spot to live,” he told me, “one of his ancestors, Francisco Sanchez, left the city of Lepe, Spain, fleeing the Catholic Inquisition. Francisco was Jewish. He settled in Mexico near Durango and converted to Catholicism, under fear of death. From then on, all of us were Catholics.”

We entered the church and took a seat near the rear. Sanchez crossed himself and settled into silent prayer. Later, as he watched the altar boys light the tall tallow candles, he whispered to me that when he was a boy, his family lived just behind Blessed Sacrament Church, and he served as an altar boy for morning mass. “The worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said, “was that I got burned on my chin by the candles.”

In a short homily, the priest talked about how going to church is a “rewarded action.” When people enter the church, the priest said, they leave the world behind and find a moment’s peace. This gives them the courage to face the problems that the world presents. “That’s the way I feel,” said Sanchez when we left the church. “Ready to face another week on the campaign trail.”

Notwithstanding his distant Jewish ancestry, Sanchez sees himself as genetically a Catholic. His roots, his blood, his ethnicity, are all intrinsic parts of his faith. By contrast, one might say that Perry is generically a Protestant. Although he is a Methodist by birth, you get the feeling talking to him that he could just as easily be a Baptist or a Presbyterian. Being a Methodist provides Perry with a way to approach God on his own, not through a hierarchical church (even though Methodists have powerful governing bodies). That’s what most Protestants are most concerned with—discovering their individual relationship with God. This doesn’t necessarily connect him to a universal mother church of all times and all places, as does Sanchez’s religion.

Like many Protestants, Perry defines himself as a born-again Christian. He said the most important moment in his faith occurred when he was twelve and went to a Methodist summer camp. That summer, a young minister, the Reverend Ed Robb, taught Perry to swim. In the process, Perry said, Reverend Robb “led me to the Lord.” Now, Perry said, he prays every day, reads and studies the Bible (on the day I interviewed him he was reading a commentary on the 23rd Psalm), and regularly attends Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, President Bush’s former church.

But if their churches have a profound effect on the two candidates’ personal lives, the effect the churches have on their politics is a different matter. When I asked Perry how his religion informs his politics, he replied, “I don’t think it does, particularly.” Initially, that answer might seem disingenuous, coming from a politician who is busily courting the born-again Christian vote, but it turns out that the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, a guideline for the church concerning public policy, is very much at odds with many of Perry’s conservative views. It supports a woman’s right to have an abortion, it is against school-sanctioned prayer in public schools, and it opposes the death penalty. “I don’t pay attention to the Methodist book. The Book of Discipline is not what I thumb through,” said Perry. “The Bible is a little bit better resource document.”

On these issues, Perry is wrong with his religion but right with his party. Last November he appeared at a middle school assembly in Palestine in which there was a prayer “in Jesus’ name,” and later, when questioned at a news conference about whether participation in organized school prayer was appropriate, he said, “Why can’t we say a prayer at a football game or a patriotic event like we held at Palestine Middle School? I don’t understand the logic of that. I happen to think it was appropriate.” Since then, Perry has backed away from supporting school-approved prayer, which was held to violate the First Amendment by U.S. Supreme Court in 1963. Now he says he supports a moment of silence in schools. As for the death penalty, Perry said he does not view state executions as inconsistent with the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” How does he get around that commandment? “It’s the people getting justice who need to pay attention to that aspect of the commandment,” he said.

Sanchez is in the same position: wrong with his religion in many instances but right with the majority of voters. For instance, he supports the death penalty, while the official position of the Catholic Church is to oppose it. As a Democrat, he supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion, a position that he did not hold as a private citizen. “My faith in God tells me that abortion is wrong,” said Sanchez. “But I don’t think government should make that decision for a woman. I’d rather politics not enter into it at all. It’s up to the woman—and her conscience.” On the issue of school prayer, which the Catholic Church favors, he, like Perry, favors a moment of silence.

The fact that both candidates have political stands that differ from their churches does not make them hypocrites. It is a sign of healthy independence. Americans want church and state to remain separate, after all, and we want politicians who feel free to break with their churches on the issues. Suspicion among Protestants about whether Catholic politicians could be influenced by the church has twice been an issue in Texas: in 1928, when Texas voted Republican for president for the first time in its history, going for Herbert Hoover over New York governor Al Smith, a Catholic; and again in 1960, when anti-Catholic sentiment here was so high that John F. Kennedy, then the Democratic presidential nominee, came to Houston to declare his independence from Rome before a panel of Protestant ministers.

Texas has come a long way since those days, when Protestant children were routinely taught in Sunday school that Catholics were wicked “idol worshipers.” Still, Sanchez said there are vestiges of the old prejudices even now. While he has not confronted direct anti-Catholic sentiment in the current race, he acknowledged that when he has spoken to all-Protestant audiences in deep East Texas, he sometimes has been asked about the pope. “I say that the pope wouldn’t tell me what to do as governor—only the Legislature can do that,” Sanchez told me. “Even then, I might not listen.” This time, it was Sanchez who laughed nervously.

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