Southern Politics

Governor Rick PerryYou freethinking Yankees go ahead and laugh. When Texas Governor Rick Perry called upon Texans to pray for rain he did nothing more than petty rulers have doing since our species began farming and herding. We need only consult Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough to be reminded that, “Of all the things that a public magician sets himself to do for the good of the tribe, one of the chief is to control the weather, and especially to ensure an adequate fall of rain.” Perry is undoubtedly a very powerful public magician—even after accepting a fortune in campaign contributions from Big Oil many Texans are still convinced that he acts in their interest—but the current burning season in the Lone Star State would daunt the drought breaking powers of a Prophet Elijah. Vast stretches of West Texas and the Panhandle have been charred by wildfires that sometimes converged into larger conflagrations, as happened with the 150,000 acre Possum Kingdom Complex. Fires that big would tempt any politician to win some public approval by appealing for divine assistance. The important passage in the specific incantation offered up by Governor Perry is the fifth paragraph of a proclamation that bears close reading:

“I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities, and the restoration of our normal way of life.”

On first impression this wording appears impressively ecumenical. There is no reference to a named deity. Compare that the prayer for precipitation offered to “God” and “Miracle Creator” as the object or objects of supplication by then Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue back in 2007. Then there is Governor Perry’s reference to “Texans of all faiths and traditions.” Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims (so long as they don’t plan on building a Mosque to offer up their prayers for rain), and perhaps even Wiccans, are all invited to join together, etc. The only people who would seem to have been excluded are those who think that the weather isn’t influenced by our wishes. Unfortunately there might be a serpent lurking in this rhetorically inclusive garden: where the first sentence refers to three days, the second sentence refers to a single day. That might be nothing more than an oversight by staffers who were unable to proofread the text because they are on their knees begging for supernatural meteorological intervention, but it also could be interpreted as encoding a reference to the Christian Trinity in the invitation. If so, that would not be the first time Perry attempted to please multiple audiences. Speaking to the National Association of Power Engineers (NAPE) Oil and Gas Expo on February 11, 2010, he railed against “theories of man-caused climate change.” (His political consultants probably insisted that he use the clunky phrase “man-caused” rather than “anthropogenic” so as not to risk sounding too intellectual.) What is most striking about the speech is that within seconds of attacking climate change as a theory, he brags that Texas has reduced its CO2 emissions more than any other state. That could only be a point of pride if climate change is “man-caused.” A fit of absentmindedness is one possible explanation for such illogic, but another is that it was deliberately included to give environmentalists hope that he might doubt the nonsense of the climate skeptics. Greens tend to look for signs of ecological reason with the same hope that Evangelicals tend to bring to their search for symbolism buried in text. Here is the political genius of Perry’s seeming inconsistency. He appeals to ecumenic unity and climate skepticism in the near term, but gives himself openings to appeal to a less tolerant Christian majority when the current emergency has passed and to environmentalists when the consensus that global warming is real reemerges. So laugh at that you freethinking Yankees. Whether or not any Texas politician really believes in the power of collective prayer to change the elemental forces of nature, it is absolutely certain they believe in covering their bets.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.