In early August 2011, Rick Perry took the stage at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, his image blown up on megascreens and broadcast to the thousands present. This was “The Response,” a daylong prayer rally for Evangelical Christians intended to bring about spiritual revival in the country. They raised their hands, they swayed from side to side, and they huddled closely in small groups. God, Perry said, “is wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party.”
“He doesn’t have a political agenda,” the governor said. Less than a week later, the Texas governor announced his ill-fated candidacy for the presidency of the United States.
God may not have a political agenda, but more than a few American politicians do. On Saturday, while most of the potential 2016 candidates will be at Iowa’s Freedom Summit, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal will host “The Response” at Louisiana State University. It’s not often these days that you see a sitting governor bow out of a political event to hold court at a prayer rally, so what, exactly, is going on? Though the Republican establishment has kept the religious Right at arm’s length, Jindal is aggressively courting the party’s values voters. His actions say he’s not just a Rhodes Scholar–cum–policy wonk but that he understands the spiritual, the sacred, too.
It’s a little-discussed aspect of Jindal’s political life, but that will change if he decides to run for president in 2016. He doesn’t flinch when he says the country needs a spiritual revival. “I think it is so important for us to turn to prayer, to turn to God,” he tells me. “Folks that want to take prayer out of the public square, that’s completely inappropriate.” He predicts Saturday’s event will be not just an “incredible event for Louisiana, but for our country.”
The event has already sparked controversy because the group underwriting it, the American Family Association, has organized boycotts against companies that do not use the word “Christmas” in their holiday advertising and communications as well as those that participate in gay-rights events or donate to gay-rights causes. That included a one-month boycott of PetSmart last November and a three-year boycott of Home Depot that ended in 2013. LSU students are organizing protests in advance of the governor’s arrival on campus.
Jindal is defiant. He says the controversy is little more than a media-induced firestorm. “I know the media always tries to divide people of faith,” he says. “I hope they come inside and join us in prayer.”
Though Jindal won’t say it directly, he doesn’t think much of the GOP’s subtle calls, as in the party’s post mortem report on the 2012 election, to soften its positions on social issues — or, as the report put it, to make sure “young people do not see the party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view.”
“We don’t need two liberal parties in this country — a liberal party and a cheaper version of that party,” Jindal offers when I ask him whether Republicans need to relent on the social issues. Voters, he says, prefer “the authentic version.”
“I’m a big believer in what we believe and in telling what we stand for across the board,” he says.
“The Response” and other events like it are organized by David Lane, a self-described political mechanic with reach into the depths of the Evangelical community. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry have attended his “pastors and pews” events in the early primary states, intended to give the nation’s top politicians the opportunity to make inroads with local pastors.
“The Evangelicals are going to be real critical,” Lane says of the upcoming presidential election. “Whoever engages with that constituency is gonna win in Iowa, is gonna win in South Carolina.” He notes that he’s previously extended invitations to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Ohio governor John Kasich to speak to pastors in private, closed-door meetings. They declined.
I ask Lane if putting the GOP’s top political talents in a room with dozens of pastors or on stage at a religious revival poses a risk. It can make for an awkward photo-op. At one of Lane’s events in Iowa in 2013, pastors were photographed laying their hands on Cruz and praying for the direction of the Republican party.
Back in 1996, Texas senator Phil Gramm expressed, in his inimitable style, a different approach to the Christian Right: “I ain’t running for preacher.” “There’s a reason that Phil Gramm raised the most money [in the lead-up to the 1996 presidential election] and got zero out of his” unsuccessful bid, Lane says. Candidates, he says, must engage with the Evangelical constituency.
Jindal doesn’t seem like the most natural person to do so. Born Hindu, he began to stray in high school and converted to Catholicism during his undergraduate years at Brown University. He talks often of his conversion, and he couches his talk about religious and social issues not in moral terms but as a matter of freedom. In a commencement speech at Liberty University last May, he talked about a “war on religious liberty” that “is only going to continue.”
“Make no mistake,” he said, “the war over religious liberty is the war over free speech, and without the first there is no such thing as the second.”
That’s how Jindal will use his religious faith to appeal to Evangelicals as well as to American voters more broadly if he decides to mount a presidential bid. But first, he’ll be in South Carolina in early March, in closed-door meetings with pastors in that early primary state.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.