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

    Hey, someone go live in Iran and tell them to Cut the Muslim CRAP out. Seriously, it has NO REASON to be in their politics...

    September 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Self Righteousness Is a Sin

      The Taliban and the Tea Party are becoming VERY similar.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • JT

      So you're saying the US should like Iran? See, this is what the sane majority is afraid of when you wingnuts go to the voting booth following your pastor's directive.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  2. Cody

    Only The Lord Christ Jesus is going to be able to solve the problems of in America today. No man or woman will ever do it without Him.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Religizz

      If Jesus came down today and said he was the son of god he would once again be executed, this time by Rick Perry.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Self Righteousness Is a Sin

      ...your imaginary friend can't solve your idiocy

      September 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Salmander

      When he is running, I'll vote for him. But these yahoos who claim to follow him, but show no compassion to thier fellow man, have no place in government.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      ":Only The Lord Christ Jesus is going to be able to solve the problems of in America today."
      When is he going to get off his butt and get started? We've had nothing BUT 'men of god' and where has it gotten us?
      Your jesus is no help.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Ezra


      If Jesus came down today and said he was the son of god he would once again be executed, this time by Rick Perry.

      Right, a poor illegal alien with a beard talking about peace and love...he'd be toast in no time in Texas!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Saboth

      Your opinion reminds me of the irony of sports teams praising God for their victories. "Well, the Patriots gave praise to God for their victory today. That'll teach The Giants to pray to Satan."

      So any country not praying to Jesus and God is really going to be up the creek.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  3. Salmander

    Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Gov will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together; [James Madison, Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822, The Writings of James Madison, Gaillard Hunt]

    September 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  4. Religizz

    Look how close to god I am! I can look up into the sky and ask questions and blame other people for my problems! Aren't I a good christian?! Now hold my cowboy hat while I pull the switch and FRY this sucker! What's he guilty of? Why a crime worse than murder: abortion! Life begins at conception, so that single-celled embryo is a human. That means, when you abort a two month old fetus, you're killing billions of cells: BILLIONS OF HUMANS! Now hold my spurs while I bear false witness and invade this country.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  5. BJJSchecter

    I am confused. Perry is a Christian who is for the death penalty. How is this possible?

    September 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Religizz

      Simple: he's an anti-christian.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • JT

      Hypocrisy and contridictions are the hallmark of Christianity. Every Christian thinks he is the True Christian® and everyone else has it wrong. That's why the thousands of denominations.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Ezra

      the lord works in mysterious ways. The pat answer for all contradictions, right?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  6. hippypoet

    heres a simple solution, any dude who wants to be closer to christ should be nailed to a cross and left to die for a few days then stabbed with a spear, you know, to be safe.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  7. Self Righteousness Is a Sin

    If a right-winger thumps me with his bible I'm gonna punch em' in the face! Enough with the Talibanesque "Christian" jihadists.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  8. William Demuth


    I am getting you spell check for Christmas!

    September 14, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Self Righteousness Is a Sin

      Biblical version, no doubt.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Actualy I was thinking of the Penthouse Thesarus!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm |

    Those candidates have so much infactuation with Gods. They believe God created the Earth. Then why do those candidates allow the business to destroy our God created Earth. To them, only God can destroy the Earth. Human have no right. I like to see their comments on this contracdiction

    September 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Margaret

      It is obvious, they believe that Jesus is coming soon and is going to make everything whole again. So Let's Party.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  10. rATL

    The politicians that preach AT ALL will never get my vote. I'm all for religion if you feel so compelled but it should be private. Religion is no way to run a country and we need to get rid of it in government. If you feel otherwise just look at the Middle East, they are all ruled by religion and it is absolute disaster and chaos.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  11. Religizz

    What's religious about executing people and leaving the sick to die? It's true: the meek WILL inherit the earth, but not before the very stupid people who think they're followers of christ have turned it into a smoldering hole.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  12. ron4152

    If God is involved in our political decisions, then how are we different from Muslim nations?

    September 14, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • yeahalright

      cuz them theyr gud is brown n r GOD is merican n whyt.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Because we bathe?

      Because we don't wear turbans?

      Because our women aren't hairy?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Becks

      To William Demuth – so how's that jingoistic, racist, small-mindedness working for you? Let me guess, Tea Party secretary?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Guess you don't know me to well, but stick around.

      If your a liberal, you need a sense of humour!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  13. Self Righteousness Is a Sin

    It gets so confusing because there are so many gods. I'm never sure who they're ranting about – Buddha, Allah, Shiva, Zeus, Jehovah, or Joseph Smith??

    September 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  14. carla

    Thank you for writing this piece. As a DEMOCRAT CHRISTIAN, it is so difficult to hear people throw God's name around for political gain. I have had a question in my head for several years now and have tried to reconcile it, but have had no results. During the last debt ceiling debate, it really really hit me again. Here it is: The Republicans go on a platform of this nation was built with christian values. Then, there's the separation of church and state, although those are not the exact words. As a christian, I have been taught and believe that we are to help the poor, the needy, the homeless, shelter etc;. I agree that handouts is not a good way to go about it but we can't just let these AMERICANS suffer. We can teach them to take care of themselves. This is not impossible. You remember the whole fish story. Something I do NOT understand is why the Republicans are not willing to do their part, not only as politicians but human beings. To much is given, much is expected. Ok, perhaps the money wasn't given to them but you get the point. I just don't understand the "CHRISTIAN right". Have a heart and help us help them.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Democrat Christian?

      I detect some Fox News mental programing in your language.

      Democratic Christian seems, well, more rational.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Religizz

      Personally, as someone who's not a christian or any bogus religion, I don't think they deserve help. I think they should just die and rot because that's what they want for other people. Christians who followed the word of christ all got eaten by lions. It's not until some king painted a cross on his guys' shields to give them courage to slaughter their foes that christianity really took off. Blood in, blood out.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • carla

      @Religizz. I'm confused, who should rot?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  15. Sharky

    Whenever a politician talks about God, he is doing it because he doesn't have a real platform and he is hoping to get the votes of other people who don't know current events either.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  16. hippypoet

    has a candident ever done what they promise once in office? thou shall not lie!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  17. Kweso

    God talk was not what I observed during the last debate. It was mostly about Money Talk, Job Talk, Tax Cut Talk, Social Security Reform Talk. There was no indication that these so-called religious rightists share any compassion or love, or empathy and moral concern for the poor. We heard the Tea Partiers suggesting that an uninsured person should be abandoned to die because of their inability to pay. So the god they often refer to is the one incribed on their money.

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

      maybe your right... but "IN GOD WE TRUST" shouldn't be there either! its rather arrogant.. and yes i can't spell...deal with it.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  18. Sean

    So if two football teams or two candidents both pray to god or get a msg from god that they should win. Should the team or candident that loses call god a liar? The Catch 22 of religion.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Yeah and when people survive some horrible tragedy but everybody else died they say "God saved me"...they never mention the other side of that coin "God didn't save them."

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

      They should both explain to their therapist that they believe an infinitely old, all-knowing being, powerful enough to create the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, is taking to them about their football game.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Pastor Jeff

      Try reading the Word (Bible) Sean. God doesn't care who wins the game. He only cares that each person who plays in the game and calls Him God will glorify Him with their lives, their football stats, their relationships with players, opponents, coaches. Are you getting this Sean. He cares about you Sean. WHO are you? Why are you here? What have you done with the "life" God gave you? Wasted it away taking on a cause because it is what everyone else is doing? Try asking God why you are here. He will answer you if you believe. He has been waiting for you and every lost soul to just talk to Him. I know this will really get you mad Sean, but I am praying for you today. Just ask Him. He asks all if us to trust Him. Just once, trust Him.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Ezra

      The pradox of god is that he is always on 'my' side – never on 'your' side. unless your on the other side – then , of course he's on "your" side ...er...or is it "my' side..?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • A Theist

      Any time I dehumanize another human being, God is not on my side. Does that clear the paradox up for you?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  19. hippypoet

    i mean come on... thou shall not steal..... anyone ever here of a not currupt elected offical?

    September 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  20. hippypoet

    heres an idea, why is any god of any type in politics at all? An elected offical has 2 jobs, do what the people who voted them in want and whats in the people's best interest. Religion has nothing to do with todays world execpt get in peoples way and make them do things otherwise intelligent humans would not do.

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

      Anyone in this country ever hear of separation of church and state? Does anyone here remember the debacle of the Terry Schiavo case, a personal medical matter which ultimately involved evangelical governor of Florida, two senators and the President of the United States for religious reasons? I will not vote for any evangelists who are trying to legislate morality to the masses. ENOUGH!!!!!!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Frank

      To say religion has nothing to do with today's world is nonsense. It would be nice if our country respected individual liberty and freedoms to the fullest, but sadly neither of our two parties desire that. The right wingers want to impose all sorts of restriction on liberty based on their christian standards of morality, while the left wants to place all sorts of restrictions on economic freedom and private property. Its just one set of values vs another with the intention of setting the morality standards for society. Why do I have to support things I don't agree with like war, excess regulation, welfare schemes, etc? Its becuase someone else has decided for me. It does not matter if it was based on religion or the values of some dead economic philosopher. Its still the same to me, its a restriction on my freedom based on someone elses idea of morality. Thus the religion in politics is as valid as Marx or what ever social/economic philosophers views are accepted.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:06 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.