September 14th, 2011
10:58 AM ET
Editor’s note: Brian T. Kaylor is assistant professor of communication studies at James Madison University and author of “Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics.”
By Brian T. Kaylor, Special to CNN
Rick Perry’s Wednesday visit to Liberty University marks only the latest effort by the Texas governor to reach the White House by confessing his faith.
Even in an election cycle dominated by economic concerns, Perry and several of his Republican presidential opponents have spent the last few months trying to out-God-talk one another in hopes of attaining salvation at the ballot box.
While debate moderators and election commentators focus on economic issues, the religious rhetoric of the presidential candidates appears to go mostly unnoticed - except by the key Republican voting bloc being courted. After being a Republican, the best predictor of someone being a Tea Party supporter is whether a person has a desire to see religion significantly impact politics.
This type of confessional politics, in which candidates invoke God and cite Scripture to win elections, has unfortunately dominated U.S. politics for three decades. Ever since Bible-quoting Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976, presidential candidates have followed his example of using religious rhetoric that is testimonial, partisan, sectarian and liturgical.
Exemplifying the confessional political style, Perry said he felt “called” by God to run for president. He kicked off his campaign with brazen confessional gusto, bringing tens of thousands together in an NFL stadium for a day of prayer and fasting.
In June, Perry secretly met a group of nearly 80 conservative Christian leaders at a gathering organized by evangelist James Robison. The Texas evangelist led a similar secret meeting in 1979 to plot Jimmy Carter's defeat.
That earlier effort culminated in an August 1980 religious-political rally with Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan that helped Reagan mobilize conservative pastors for his victory. At the event, Reagan famously used a line suggested by Robison to win over the crowd: “I know you can’t endorse me … but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.”
Perry isn’t the only candidate who believes the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue runs down the church aisle.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who has also said she felt God was “calling” her to run, won the Iowa Straw Poll last month in large part because of support from conservative evangelicals. Her campaign strategy includes speaking in churches and garnering pastor endorsements.
Now that Perry has entered the race with a similar strategy, Bachmann’s poll numbers are in free fall. As Jesus warned, those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
Even candidates who might not be expected to try their hands at confessional politics have orchestrated come-to-Jesus moments.
Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul may idolize thinker Ayn Rand (even naming his son after her) but he is rejecting her atheistic worldview as he hopes to become the GOP’s standard-bearer. In July, Paul’s campaign launched its “Evangelicals for Ron Paul” initiative.
The website for the effort prominently features a quote from Paul: “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and I endeavor every day to follow Him in all that I do in every position I advocate.”
Even Mormon candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, whose faith makes them suspicious to many evangelicals, work references to Jesus into their speeches.
In the last presidential campaign, Romney proudly confessed, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Savior of mankind.”
At the June Faith & Freedom Conference run by former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed, Huntsman attempted to endear himself to the evangelical audience by crediting Jesus with bringing his adopted Chinese daughter into his family.
These candidates may not have the same natural religious swagger as Perry, but they're clearly seeking faith-based voters in hopes of not being left behind.
Romney has spoken at Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, as has Paul, while Bachmann is speaking there in a couple weeks. Then-presidential candidate John McCain spoke there in 2008, even after labeling Falwell an “agent of intolerance.”
Sometimes the political conversion experience on the way to Washington seems even more dramatic than the spiritual conversion of the biblical Paul on the way to Damascus.
Not to be outdone, President Barack Obama also employs the confessional political style. During the 2008 campaign he spoke of God and cited Scripture with more eloquence and ease than McCain. Obama continues to weave biblical themes and divine references into his speeches, including in remarks last weekend at the September 11 anniversary event in New York.
Voters should ignore attempts by candidates to out-confess one another and instead focus on what really matters.
John F. Kennedy declared in a speech to Protestant pastors in Houston: “I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 campaign … the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms - an America with too many slums, with too few schools.”
These same issues demand our attention today. When religious confessions crowd out critical issues, we all lose. We are not electing an evangelist-in-chief.
When political elections come down to who can claim to love God the most, we all lose. Religious devotion and piety does not inherently equal governing competence.
When religion becomes merely another political trick, we all lose. The politicization of faith profanes the sacred.
My prayer is that candidates and voters will move away from confessional politics. As a committed Christian and former Baptist pastor, I do not wish to see religion excluded from the public square. However, giving religious beliefs too much weight in electoral decisions undermines the basic democratic values that have guided our nation for over two centuries.
The expectation that candidates talk about God and their personal religious beliefs shifts attention away from critical policy concerns, creates a de facto religious test for office and essentially disenfranchises those of minority faiths or who have no faith. Confession may be good for the soul, but it is not always good for democracy.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian T. Kaylor.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.