GOP Presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry has released a campaign ad called "Strong," in which he bemoans the fact that "gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in schools." (For the record, kids can pray in schools. They can even do so "openly." It's schools that can't, and shouldn't, pray openly. I've said it once and I'll say it again: As long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools.) In his ad, Gov. Perry is sporting a casual, rugged outfit and he delivers his reflections on faith-- which "made America strong, and can make her strong again"-- with the kind of casual, rugged straight-talk that Presidential candidates tend to adopt during campaign season. Because Perry opens with the bold proclamation "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian," we're meant to see him as a beleaguered, marginalized, even oppressed outside-of-the-Beltway Everyman. But we're also meant to see him, like his ad, like faith, as strong. Like America used to be.
Here's the entire ad, if you haven't seen it yet:
Let's suppose for a moment that one did have good reason to believe that Presidential candidates might be ashamed of admitting that they're Christian. (That requires putting aside, of course, the fact that every President in the history of this country has been Christian, that every other candidate currently running for President is Christian, and that the closest we've ever been to disrupting that pattern was when Joseph Lieberman, a Jew, served-- and LOST-- as the candidate for Vice-President on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore in 2000.) But, supposing that it did require some strength to admit that one is a Christian, as it certainly does to admit that one is an atheist or a homosexual, the question remains: is Rick Perry's ad an example of that strength?
No, it's not.
Taking an unpopular or unorthodox stand requires quite a bit of moral fortitude, to be sure, especially when the stakes are as high as they are in Presidential elections. That moral fortitude is not what we see in Perry's ad. What we see in Perry's ad is a bait-and-switch. He serves up his declaration of faith as a defensive amuse-bouche, but the main course here is offensive, and aggressively so. Although he doesn't explicitly condemn gays serving in the military or the separation of church and state, his implicit condemnation is crystal-clear. He positions himself as the David to Obama's Goliath; the rock in his sling is homophobia. He has manufactured a "war on religion," in which we are to assume he is a holy warrior, but his defensive gestures are just the delivery vehicle for what is in reality his own declaration of war. The strength that he displays, such that it is, is made strong only by capitalizing on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others. It's an illusory strength. But is it the strength that made America "strong"?
Unfortunately, yes, it is.
Or, at least, it's the kind of American strength that the GOP seems to prize. It's the kind of strength that flexes its muscle at the barbarians at the gate. It's fearful and forceful. It's preemptive. It's all shock and awe. It's hospitable to its own kind only by being equally hostile to strangers. And it's absolutely dripping with what Nietzsche would call ressentiment. Perry's ad turns his weakness-- his fear of difference, his intolerance, his solipsism, his lack of compassion, his fundamentally anti-democratic sense of the "common"-- into strength, but he can only do so by first making his weaknesses righteous.
They are not righteous. And they are not strong.