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Rick Perry's Houston Dog Whistle

The definition of a political "dog whistle" is a communication (or series of communications) that convey to key members of an interest or constituency group gratifying but potentially controversial affirmations of their views without the mainstream media or the broader electorate catching on. By that standard, Rick Perry's big "day or prayer and fasting" in Houston over the weekend was a very successful dog whistle.

Mainstream and secular-conservative media coverage of the event (dubbed "The Response," itself a dog whistle reference to an ongoing series of dominionist events operating under the brand of "The Call" aimed at mobilizing conservative evangelicals to assume leadership of secular society) generally concluded that it was a largely "non-political" gathering--just some Christians upset about the bad economy and their own moral failings who got together to pray over it.

A few reporters who watched and listened more carefully, and had a Christian Right decoder ring on hand, had a very different take. Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner, who knows the ins and outs of dominionist thinking exceptionally well, and who attended the Houston event, explained its intent as an act of political mobilization:


"[C]ommand" and "obedience" were the day's chief buzzwords for many speakers, as repentance was required on behalf of yourself, your church, and your country for having failed to commit yourself to Jesus, for having permitted abortion and "sexual immorality," for failing to cleanse yourself of "filthiness," and to repent for having "touched what is unclean...."

The people who gathered at Reliant Stadium are not just Rick Perry's spiritual army, raised up, as Perry and others imagine it, in the spirit of Joel 2, to sound an alarm and prepare the people for Judgment Day. They are the ground troops the religious right set out four decades ago to create, and duplicate over generations, for the ongoing culture wars. One part of that army is people like Perry himself, supported by religious right political elites who aimed to cultivate candidates, advocates, and political strategists committed to putting God before government.

That a sitting governor would laugh off charges that his "instigation" of an exclusively Christian--and, more specifically, a certain kind of Christian--event is proof of the success of the cultural and spiritual warriors, who believe they are commanded to "take dominion" over government and other spheres of influence. Perry is their man in a high place, in this case an especially courageous one, willing to rebuff charges from the "radical secularists" that he's crossed the line between church and state. That makes him something much more than just a political or spiritual hero; he is an exemplar.

Slate's Dave Weigel was also in Houston, and his report debunks the talk of the event being "nonpolitical" by understanding, like Posner, the political freight of the particular strain of evangelical Christianity mostly represented there:

[According to] Pete Ortega, one of dozens of people who's come up from San Antonio on buses from John Hagee's church...there is nothing political about the event, he says. He just wants to praise Perry.

"If this is successful here," he says, "I think other governors, or other politicians, will come out of the closet. Christianity is under attack, and we don't speak out about it."
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That's the brilliance of what Perry has done here: These ideas don't contradict each other at all. He doesn't need to talk about politics, or do anything besides be here and understand this event. The religion is the politics. These worshippers understand that if they can bring "the kingdom of God" to Earth, economic problems, even macroeconomic problems, will sort themselves out....

The soon-to-be Republican presidential frontrunner, who is best known among liberal voters for raising the prospect of secession and for presiding over hundreds of executions, has just presented himself as a humble messenger of obvious biblical truth. "Our heart breaks for America," he says. "We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government." It's one day since S&P downgraded America's bond rating, in part because the agency worried that conservative Republicans had proved that they would never agree to a debt-reducing bargain that included tax increases. Perry was pulling off an impressive act of transference.

Observers who don't get any of what Posner and Weigel are talking about are in effect assisting him in the effort to execute his dog whistle appeal to activists whose world-view is entirely alien to nearly all secular Americans and most mainstream Christians. But just because much of the country can't hear it doesn't mean it cannot serve as a powerful inducement to political activity in a presidential nominating process where small determined groups of people can have a big impact.