This past Wednesday, an acquaintance of mine pursuing a Manhattan-based career in choreography posted a facebook status update link to Rick Perry’s now infamous clunker of a YouTube campaign clip, “Strong.” The link was preceded by my friend’s expression of total exasperation, a couple disjointed words trailing off in an ellipses indicating that unique variety of dumbstruck, cognitive dissonance that the Jackie Chan meme adjacent to this paragraph can alone properly express. And while I had not been very interested in Perry’s candidacy up to that point, I valued the opinion of my pal in New York enough to view that clip.
I should mention that I had just concluded a modestly pointed yet vastly rewarding discussion with about a half a dozen folks from the church I am privileged to serve on the topic of Jesus’s prophetic role as depicted in biblical texts like Hebrews 1:1-4. Perhaps I felt inspired by that investigation to speak some truth to power myself, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as that saying by Finley Peter Dunne goes. Perhaps I was motivated to provide a counterexample to what looked like a bizarre amalgamation of something quietly hateful and deceitfully Christian in Perry’s message for the benefit of my friend and whoever else might click through that link he posted. Perhaps I was just really ticked off from the whiplash I suffered by plummeting from the heights of mutually edifying, respectful conversation with friends to the depths of Perry’s tortured campaign dreck. In any case, I just had to respond.
Now, if you’re one of the few people who has not yet viewed this clip in question, please do so now and then read onward; it pains me to even summarize its content any more than I do in passing below. And in case some of the things Perry said in that clip positively resonate with you, in case you sometimes feel that society is waging war against your faith or your ideals for our culture as a whole, please bear with me until the end. (The same thing goes for those of you who are sick of Perry and his video clip.) Aside from a few clarifications accommodating for the shift in context from a more personal facebook comment thread to a more general blog post, here is what I wrote three days ago and stand by this morning:
As a pastor actively serving the men and women of Chicago in some way, shape, or form for years on end, I most assuredly do not approve of Rick Perry’s message. Pitting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (henceforth, DADT) against the prohibition of kids openly celebrating Christmas or praying in public schools merely plays to the base Perry hopes to strengthen at the cost of polarizing that base with respect to everyone else. The tired trope of a “liberal attack on our religious heritage” engenders not just an “us vs. them” mentality, it also seeks to increase the incidence of reactionary behavior among whoever qualifies as an “us.” And it seeks to do both of these things for the sake of gaining political power.
This strikes a deep chord within my soul, because I am not that far from the group of people to whom Perry’s message was most directly focused given my faith in Jesus as Messiah. And on the basis of that message Perry promoted, I am supposed to believe with all the other huddled masses of “us” that there is some group of nameless antagonists, a “them” epitomized in Obama against whom Perry will heroically provide defense. But I see absolutely nothing of Jesus in what Perry has said in this clip, and I wonder how long he will continue to obfuscate the fact that it was the outcast, the marginalized, and the sinners with whom Christ chose to dwell yet the religiously established colluding with the politically powerful who sought most fervently to put him to death.
Moreover, why should anybody care about some archaic religious heritage constructed out of the pastiche of America’s history in the first place? Why is that revision of our past that Perry selects–a revision that all-too-conveniently neglects the litany of genocide and injustice interwoven with the more commendable aspects of our story–the one we should arbitrarily claim to “matter” today? Isn’t all of it important since, well, all of it actually happened? Moreover, the end result of that pseudo-homogeneous religious heritage would be our present context, right? So, if we don’t like the fruit of our past decisions, what sense is there in an attempted return to its more nascent form? To repeat the whole process all over again because we cannot think of any better way to move towards a categorically new and more promising future?
The congregation I serve in Chicago was challenged several years ago to develop a statement of its view of sexuality, its understanding of God’s desires and designs for our lives in their sexual dimensions. Although this occurred before my time ministering with the women and men of First Free Church, I love the way that the document resulting from this endeavor emphasizes a few key facts that are central to an orthodox, Christian worldview elevating the conversation of sexuality above a mere list of do’s and dont’s. And while there is much to discuss about sexuality, suffice it to say here that I share the conviction expressed by the statement my fellow church leaders drafted regarding the fact that human sexuality is a good and purposeful thing, that God’s very self came up with the idea of sexual intimacy in the first place. As Creator and Lord of all, God possesses the right to make claims on our sexuality, and following God’s ways is what is best for us even when it is difficult or unpopular. With the majority of the Church through time, the rest of my current congregation’s leadership and I believe that God’s intent for the active expression of sexual intimacy is within the context of heterosexual marriage or else singleness in chastity. As an unmarried man with a relentless hunger to experience the joy and, yes, also the challenges that come with married life, those claims I just mentioned are hard. For me personally. (Jesus, help me!) But they are sound; they are good.
Hence, one might not expect to find that I am supportive of the repeal of DADT. Why would I come to that conclusion despite all of the above? Because losing DADT means that both the heteronormative and the LGBT military community can be honest and open about the facts rather than advised to live a lie by omission of detail. Similarly, I appreciate the removal of prayers from public schools in the sense where this actually has occurred, viz. where students are no longer forced to actively pray or sit through prayers conducted by their teachers and school administration, because it enables our society to be more open and honest about our actual, pluralistic composition. We are people with enough similarity to have a shot at coping with our differences rather than pretending they don’t exist or leveraging those of us in one group to toe the line of another group without sufficient warrant. In other words, there is a profound benefit to this sort of pluralism, one that does not seek to blur all our distinctions or overcome them by fiat but to realistically deal with them in their pointedness and messiness, eschewing scripted, sitcom-like plot lines where voiced disagreement with another’s way of life is tantamount to bigotry on the one hand and the ideological equivalent of tyranny on the other hand.
I like being able to speak openly about my faith in Jesus in this context, about the merits of the claims that my Messiah makes upon my life and the lives of others without getting pat, hollow, responses of pseudo-agreement from people following some utterly sickening twist of civic virtue neutered of all reference to truth. I would much rather share a difficult relationship with someone who completely disagreed with me–in truth–rather than a vacuous relationship with somebody who had jettisoned any robust sense of their own convictions for whatever it is they are “supposed” to think or do. If Perry means to protect America’s religious heritage by shutting up the sorts of people who sharply disagree with me, then he is not just attempting to abuse them, he is also attempted to rob me of one of the most precious opportunities I have to share my faith. And if the substance upon which my faith is itself founded is not sufficiently strong to survive those turbulent waters of dialog and disagreement (especially without Perry’s protection), then there is no possible way that the foundation of my faith came from the Almighty God who spoke the universe into existence and in whom all things live and move and have their being.
Sure, I know just as well as anybody with a modest command of history that many of the founders of American society were religious, but several of them were not all that exemplary by that day’s standards. And even those who were religious certainly were not all cut from the same cloth: Penn was Quaker, Washington was Anglican, Jefferson was a humanist deist, and Franklin was a Christian one of Puritan heritage. But Perry’s political gerrymandering not only obscures this fact and the others I mentioned above, it neglects the far more impactful point on which I’ll conclude this diatribe.
There is nothing–absolutely nothing–meritorious about leveraging a spirit of division, exclusion, reactionism, and false antagonism on Perry’s premises (even if they weren’t so thoroughgoingly specious) when the precious opportunity to dignify, embrace, and redemptively engage one another while we labor to create a categorically better future lies in wait. That latter project will be difficult and undoubtedly marked by turns of dispute and misunderstanding as much as agreement and co-laboring. But at least it is truthful. At least it is possible. At least it is more like the Christ that Perry purports to worship than the politically charged religiosity that crucified Jesus over the very sorts of ideas Perry so mistakenly aggrandizes to everyone’s hurt. Not just the hurt of “them” gays and lesbians and Obama-lovers so callously treated as foils in this God forsaken clip but the hurt of whoever the “us” was supposed to be. And my own hurt, too.
Well, I wasn’t too sure how anybody would respond to my unsolicited, theo-political tirade, but the first comment it received was “BRAVO SIR!” Then somebody posted a different clip of Hilary Clinton speaking at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to the end that “gay rights are human rights” on the very same day that the Perry clip was uploaded to YouTube. Then somebody else asked me if I was planning to run for office since, evidently, they were inclined to vote for me. And then another person posted a link to an image that had swiftly flown up the ranks of websites like reddit.com showing that Perry wore a jacket in his campaign clip that looked a whole lot like that of the late Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain–working title “can’t make this $#!% up.”
Then somebody else argued that Rick Perry “is bigot”–not a bigot but is bigot. Amber Macarthur argued a similar point the following day in her article with The Globe and Mail, saying that Perry’s clip could be considered “hate speech” leading to a take down from YouTube given a sufficient number of users flagging it as such. Since I personally believe that just about everybody probably holds some bigoted views about something, this aspect of the clip was not the most frustrating part of the matter. Rather, it was Perry’s decision to leverage the polarizing nature of his views to gain support, i.e. at the expeense of driving more deeply the fractures that already exist in our society. I will admit that I found Perry’s views offensive and not just illogical. On a personal level, I bristled at the sheer velocity with which he swept a declaration about not being ashamed to admit that he is a Christian right into trying to fortify a claim that “there is 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.” It would be too much of a sidetrack to articulate how frustrating it is to watch people like Perry reinforce again and again that stereotype that Christians are a bunch of moronic, homophobic haters–and especially to know that Perry is probably acting this way because he really believes it is for the best. But on the level of evaluating his aspirations for statesmanship, it is his calculated use of everything comprising that wild package of campaign ad to gain political strength specifically through polarizing activity that I found most disturbing of all.
And that is why I was pleasantly surprised at what happened next, for, lo and behold, Rick Perry has miraculously unified America. Namely, through prompting a virtually unanimous, negative response to Rick Perry’s “Strong.” Within roughly one full day after the clip was posted by Perry’s camp, Chicagoan film critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert, tweeted, “Answer to Rick Perry’s confusion: We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Epic YouTube fail,” including a link to Garance Franke-Ruta’s article in The Atlantic analyzing the overwhelmingly negative, high-volume response the campaign commercial was receiving from virtually every front. All sorts of people began uploading parody videos satirizing the matter, including nationally established groups like Chicago’s Second City Network, rising “YouTube famous” acts like The Comedy Couple, maybe-not-so-famous-but-quite-prolific atheists like James Kotecki, and the one I personally found most hilarious, Conservative Jewish rabbi, Jason Miller.
Will Ferrel’s “Funny or Die” website put together a more surprisingly tasteful response than expected, depicting a buddy-buddy version of Jesus Christ correcting Perry’s gaffes. Memes began to fly all over the place, including a Harry Potter homage to the 2012 campaign of “Lord Perrymort,” alleging that you “do not need to be a Pureblood to know there is something wrong with the Wizarding World when Mudbloods can live among the worthy as equals, but our own children cannot openly practise the Dark Arts.” Roughly 72 hours after Perry’s “Strong” was posted to YouTube, it has garnered over 3 million views with a 98% disapproval rating, a feat so momentous that apparently everybody from The Huffington Post to Salon.com to local television affiliates like Wilmington, NC’s channel 6 News all felt compelled to report on the matter.
I don’t want to treat the extremely problematic aspects of what Perry said in those fateful, thirty seconds with too much levity. His perspective is dangerous. It bears a family resemblance to the specific mechanism that crucified Jesus, and it smacks of the very sort of thing that is driving so many people away from Christ’s Church of which I am a part and continue to serve. This lousy ad has upset a lot of people I love, not just ones who feel personally targeted but others who feel misrepresented, not to mention still others who are sincerely concerned about some of the fears upon which Perry played to his own political ends.
But all this has quite thankfully resulted in something I never expected when I first viewed that clip after my buddy posted it. It has brought some of us–in fact, quite a lot of us–closer together now than we were before. And in so doing, it has shown us that this is possible not just in spite of but specifically by the agency of what was selfishly intended to drive us apart. Are you ready to help build that future?