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September 14th, 2011
10:58 AM ET

My Take: Don’t be fooled by candidates’ God talk

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Opinion • Politics

soundoff (1,643 Responses)
  1. cnnsucks

    YES yes, someone remind Obama to quit telling us over and over that he's a Christian!

    We remember that well from his old pastor, no need to remind us.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • bristoltwit palin... America's favorite dancing cow

      Will you milk me ?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Bill Duke

      O'bummer!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      Are you sure? Because PLENTY of TP maggots still call him a Muslim.....

      September 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  2. Anthony Vaughn

    ITS SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO EASY TO MOCK GOD AND CHRISTAINS WHEN YOUR HEALTHY AND BREATHING.

    THE TRUE TEST IS WHEN THE HEART MONITOR GOS FLAT AND YOU ARE ABOUT TO GO INTO ETERNITY.

    DID NOT GO SO GOOD FOR GOOD OLE VOLTAIRE – HE WENT SCREAMING INTO ETERNITY

    September 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • William Demuth

      What is "GOS"

      Latin I presume?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Haha Anthony Vaughn got rickrolled by the 90's shouting caps monster... THEN

      William Demuth sucked down some 90's old school 'got no substance' grammar teacher beer.

      Awesome, quality posts here!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Colin

      Actually, the opposite is true.

      No sick Christian REALLY trusts in god. Christians never voluntarily put themselves in a position where, if their prayers are unanswered, or if god otherwise fails to act, they will suffer a physical harm. Sure, they will pray, but it will always be in addition to doing whatever medical science tells them to do. This renders the outcome of the prayers completely irrelevant.

      Whenever a Christian is sick, they might pray, but they also take the pill or undergo the surgery that their doctor advises. Very rarely will they put their money on god in lieu of medical science. Their praying on the side is a harmless, cost-free way of doubling down, but no way in hell would a rational person ignore their surgeon in favor of just prayer. Such rational people do not “trust in god”. His existence or nonexistence is rendered irrelevant by the medical advice they follow.

      If one really trusts in their god, one should ignore science. Put up or shut up. Stop taking your medicine and sacrifice a goat to him, or get on your knees and wait for your sky-god to read your mind as you silently run through a Hail Mary or two. See how far you get.

      If you do not have the courage/foolishness to do so, then knock off the Orwellian double-speak and accept that you do not trust in your god, ghost or goat. You trust in science and pay lip service to your superst.ition when doing so risks nothing.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • A Theist

      Colin, what you're describing is called Christian Science, and it is a movement that has been largely condemned for their misuse and misinterpretation of what prayer is. Not to mention, they don't trust in science! I mean, come on people, it's based on logic.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Colin sure is funny.

      A guy's ship sank, he was drowning. A helicopter came along but he waved it off cause he knew GOD would save him. He died. In Heaven he asked GOD why he didn't save him. God said "I sent you a helicopter."

      September 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Colin

      Indeed CNNSucks – which has the fortunate fringe benefit of making your sky-savior immune to disproof.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Founding Fathers

    If you can tell who is being truthful then vote for that man. The foundation of this country is based on God and the Bible. A lot of people are against God and want something different.If you don't like the rules set before man in the Bible then you should go somewhere else. Regardless of who is president of the USA, God is always in control, without God we are nothing. We are like the dogs in the street dirty and evil. God bless America!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Colin

      Willliam Demuth – why don't you take this one.......

      September 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Ezra

      Woof!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Then please tell God to fix the dam market.

      Plus the whole AIDS thing is getting tired, and all the childhood cancers are really a bore.

      Plus you might want to ask him why he seems to trash all the red states with the nasty weather? And why does he make all the evangelicals have to beg foodstamps from the feds to feed the future "Vickars of Christ"?

      You hillbillies bring new definition to the idea that poverty and ignorance go hand in hand!

      Perhaps we need to vote your God out of office????

      What we REALLY need is a WHISKEY party, where we can choose between nominating Jack Daniels or Jimmy Beam

      September 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Coloradomom

      Really? Dogs are evil? Aren't they "god's creatures"?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Colin

      Thanks William, I knew the bull would not resist that red flag for very long!!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Lucy

      Amen brother.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • SciFiChickie

      did someone forget about Seppartion of Church & State??? We may say in God we trust on our money but the country was founded to let people pratice what ever beliefs they may have...

      September 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • numbnut

      Ummm, excuse me but we do have freedom of religion in this country. That means you can follow any religion you want, or no religion at all. Americans have the right not to follow your god. If YOU don't like it, then maybe YOU should leave.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • steve

      This country was founded as a way to escape the church of England,and to be able to govern as the people choose. Those people set up a government that respected one's religion, but did not in any way specifiy that the government should abide by, or be affected by, the word of anyones god. Churches get tax-free status, yet now want to be the overriding affector of politics. As soon as you start paying your fair share, you can lobby the government with the rest of the capitalists. Until that time, keep your beliefs behind the doors of your church and your house, and let some business men and arbitrators take over the helm.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • what

      oh no, silly willy again speaking in its stupor!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Frhoads

      You should learn some history, Founding Fathers. Jefferson and Franklin were deists, not Christians. They did not want to found a Christian country, but one free of state religion and religious intolerance. =You= need to find a country more in accord with your religious principles. It is not the United States of America.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  4. Mary Ann

    Rand Paul is NOT named after Ayn Rand.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Well duh.

      He ain't Ayn Paul!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  5. Sal

    Det to all religious freakazoids,for they do not deserve to inhabit the earth.....

    September 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Bill Duke

      Learn to spell and then get back to us.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  6. Riiiiiight

    Saying "god" can "use" you is just an excuse for crazy people to kill other people. I wish people would stop using "god" as the reason to do good things (and bad things) and accept accountability for the world that surrounds you because it is a product of yourself and everyone else. "God" does nothing. We do everything good and bad.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Lucy

      Yes, people do good or bad.
      God is still on His throne.
      And Christianity does not kill. You're confusing it with Islam.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • brendon

      glory halleleluja. whatever happened to separation of church and state? i don't care if you're the reincarnation of jesus christ and you're running for office. all politicians are CROOKS!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • brendon

      christianity doesn't kill? do they not teach the crusades in school anymore? christians have killed over the exact same thing any other religious wack jobs have killed over. religion is the problem, not the solution.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Lucy

      Brendon – I need to correct you. There really isn't any such thing as separation of church and state. Read the original language. And the Crusades were to free the holy lands from the Muslims (sound familiar?) and not to convert. Don't trust revisionist history!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  7. rick perrytwit ... slack jawed bible thumper

    One time when I was vacationing in the Jerusalem, I saw a catholic tourist with his arm all the way up a camel's butt. "Car trouble?" I asked. Badda-boom, Badda-bing !!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  8. Matt

    Obviously, God is a Democrat and loves a good joke in "calling on" Perry and Bachmann. 😉

    The country would be a better place without the butt-in-your-life bible thumpers. These clowns belong in a church, not the White House.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Pastor Evans

      So Matt what you are saying is that a follower of Jesus Christ can't or shouldn't be President because God is in a true believer of Jesus Christ, so wherever they are He is there!!! I know you don't get that, like most on this thread!!!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Lucy

      America has been free BECAUSE of Christianity. Take it away and create a vacuum and you won't like what takes its place.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • brendon

      a follower of any religion can't be president because it's god damn law! it says right in the consitution "separation of church and state" but yet we let people say god made them president and all kinds of other bull. and people actually support nut jobs like bachmann who is married to a nut job running a "pray the gay away" clinic. our world is beyond fkcued

      September 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  9. DIANA

    What I find fascinating is why does God seem to speak to so many of them and tell them all to run for something. Why does He want so many bigotted people to run for President?

    I agree with Burbank, though I'm religious – anybody who starts spouting Bible quotes and says God talked to them personally, looses my interest and vote. I want to know what they'll do for the country not how religious they are.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Cause it Allah messing with the dim witted!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • name

      allah means god you stupid racist

      September 14, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  10. Debbie

    It's easier to talk about religion and God than it is to actually deal with the problems at hand. Politicians can't offend their rich, corporate donors, and yet the voters probably aren't those same rich corporate donors.. Politicians have to not actually say anything, or risk losing one group's support. God is neutral.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  11. ed

    Julie, I believe you have made your point and it is a sad one. For Mr. Adams to admit that God is an essence (something that exists) that he knows nothing about only means to me that he was ignorant (uninformed, unlearned) regarding such things. Too late for him, but there's still hope for you.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  12. Anthony Vaughn

    Anthony Vaughn

    I am also an evangelical christian. I am not saying we should vote democratic but I remind my brothers and sisters that Gods special people are the poor.

    Jeus did not chill with the rich. Indeed, he said the poor will inherit the kingdom of God and its eaiser for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

    I am not a democrat but I do agree with my democratic friends on helping the poor and unemployed.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Lucy

      Yes but God did not want the government providing for the poor, it's up to us - the family, the community, the church. But everyone is too selfish these days.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Albert

      Lucy, WHERE does it say that your "god" does not want to help the poor?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  13. Anthony Vaughn

    I am also an evangelical christian. I am not saying we should vote democratic but I remind my brothers and sisters that Gods special people are the poor.

    Jeus did not chill with the rich. Indeed, he said the poor will inherit the kingdom of God and its eaiser for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

    I am not a democrat but I do agree with my democratic friends on helping the poor and unemployed.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  14. Lenny Pincus

    I know God, and God told me to tell you to quit talking about Him. He's sick of all the misinformation. Especially Dick Perry.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Lenny, I just checked with Allah, and he says "Lenny? I know a bunch of Muhammeds, but the only Lenny I ever heard of was Squiggys freind on "Laverne and Shirley"

      September 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  15. ART

    Thats the problem beleivers don't keep it to themselves they all feel like they have to convert you or change your mind regarding religion.I for one quit beleiving in Santa and the Easter bunny a lonnng time ago, so good for you if you beleive but stop trying to convince others who don't.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Anthony Vaughn

      Mathew 7;14

      Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Albert

      Anthony, I think they were talking about va.ginas, not beliefs.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  16. Larry

    I am a Christian and actually voted for Obama last election. Christians can and should vote on what the issues are and not on a candidate aligning with his/her beliefs. Point to ponder: Bachman and Palin both claim to be evangelical Christians. It would terrify me if Palin was POTUS and Bachman was VPOTUS. Gives me shivers to even think of it. Well, maybe I would have to pray harder and go to church more often if that happened!!!!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Colin

      "Well, maybe I would have to pray harder and go to church more often if that happened!!!!

      Yes, indeed. If that happened you may indeed HAVE TO go to church and pray more often.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • A Theist

      Going to church more often? You wouldn't have a choice in the matter! 😉

      September 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • A Theist

      Colin!! Look, we're not always at ends, now are we? 😀

      September 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Colin

      Ha ha. A theist – I'm surprised you didn't gag at the idea of agreeing with such a godless heathen as I.......

      September 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • A Theist

      Well I took some Pepto Bismal before jumping on the site today, so maybe we can thank the P-Bismal for that! 😉

      It is pretty funny how the only side of people we'll ever see on this site is the difference of beliefs (and maybe political views). I often wonder how many people I'd get along with if I met them in person :P. Life experience tells me it would be just about everyone here. 😀

      September 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Colin

      I agree. We should arrange a get together of some kind. we could put HeavenSent, Rainer Bainland, and Muneef at a table and watch the fireworks!!

      September 14, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  17. Pastor Evans

    You can't help but talk about God if you really know Him! The reality and the problem is many don't really know Him, all they know is religion and religious rules and practices, but not Him. Get to know God personally and I guarentee you can't and won't stop talking about Him because He is that good!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • riomarcos

      Candidates and politicians that try to bring God and religion to the public sphere and discourse should be immediately disqualified from campaigns and barred from office.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Lisa B.

      HE who doesn't exist, shouldn't get to vote.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • pflatman

      Um, Pastor... the point is we should stop talking about him in politics. I get the feeling you disagree.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • arj

      A firm believer in God and Christ but it's their fan clubs I have issues with clubs,,,

      September 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • PW

      Is that like when a schizophrenic discovers the voice in his head and he can't stop listening to it?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • NOo..oON

      If you know the answer you won't ask the question, therefore if you ask the question you don't know the answer.

      So, find the answer and your question will be answered!?!?!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Chris R

      Being a faithful christian who doesn't doubt the existence of God I have to say that I disagree with you. My faith is a personal choice and a personal belief. I am not going to foist my belief on others any more than I would want them to foist their beliefs on me. I know and love God. I know it. God knows it. I don't need to tell it to the world.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Burstbubble

      Actions speak louder then words. I personally wonder if those that confess "Jesus" are really just trying to convince themselves? Judgment will be about what is in your heart not your confessions. You of all people know that and talking
      to people that don't want to hear it just irritates them. Stop doing it.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • JT

      You know him personally and chat with him all the time eh? They have medication for this you know. You should really seek help from a mental help professional.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  18. Vince

    Houses of worship are more than welcome in American politics! Just make sure your religion writes a big fat tax check first..if not, then keep your "God" to yourself.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Ezra

      Since the freeloaders don't pay any taxes they should be able to contribute to politicians.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Albert

      Ezra, that makes no sense at all.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  19. DD

    Here's a thought..instead of bashing God and Christians..thank our forefathers that we have the right to choose and practice our religion of choice. Change your name to god. One nation under You. Look at our money, in You we trust. Happy now? Now, keep it to yourself like you expect believers to.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  20. Thomas Jefferson

    We need to return to the fundamental guiding principles of the founding fathers: Freemasonry, Humanism, and Unitarianism.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Oh, yes. They all follow satan as he tosses around their skull and bones.

      Amen.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Mod squadders are at it again, blocking posts Reality under TJs handle.

      Read 1 John 5:10-20 on your own since the squadders won't allow it to print.

      Amen.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Paranoia Puncture

      Heaven Sent: you off on that "Mod Squadders" delusion again?

      pet.itions

      September 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.