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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. Reality

    Some straight talk about religion i.e. "god talk":

    “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today
    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

    It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions and it should play no role in politics.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Kebos

      Wholeheartedly agree. Nice post.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Ezra

      exactly why priests don't like condoms. They need a steady supply of the indoctrinated.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  2. Kebos

    Showing outright god-i-ness gets votes from the good majority (or so they claim to be) of those god-believing types. It really is pathetic but that is what a politician will do. If the majority were atheistic (which my hunch is America is anyway) then you would see a good many politicians debunk religion and keep an arm's length away from it.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  3. J

    FREEDOM of RELIGION...

    September 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Kebos

      Thank god for FREEDOM from RELIGION!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Secularist

      Freedom FROM religion...

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

      You have the freedom – to keep it to yourself and out of politics; otherwise I'm thumpin' your heads. (Jesus)

      September 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • J

      and thats exactly my point – u have ur way and he has his way

      September 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  4. Air Journey

    With regards to "Enough with the God Talk"..Amen to that!!

    September 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  5. pastafaria

    Based on the results of Perry's prayer rally, either God doesn't exist, or, less likely, he does exist but is so out of touch with his followers that he answers Texas's desperate pleas for rain by setting their state on fire. Potential GOP candidates should probably take this as their cue to start looking for some other method to demonstrate their blind faith and ignorance to the electorate.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Secularist

      The sad thing is that I really don't think they are ignorant of the electorate. The majority of the people in the US suffer from this mass delusion.

      Please don your colander now.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • J

      uh...ignorant people have answers to questions where they are uninformed. Texas fires were started by people throwing out cigarettes while they were driving, delinquent teenagers playing with dangerous materials and power lines blowing down from the wind. stupid is ...as stupid does, take a tip from Forrest!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • William Demuth

      J

      I shall flick a few more stubs in your honor!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  6. cnnsucks

    Keep up the comments libs! All these dead horse talking points making Americans more and more sick of you is sad, but ultimately fantastic. As usual when you don't stand for nothing, you stand still letting your own weight bury yourself.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Self Righteousness Is a Sin

      Your expletive rife name says it all about your moral hypocrisy.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • pastafaria

      @cnnsucks Why don't you pray to God and ask him to make it rain, then douse yourself with gasoline and go wait outside for his response.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  7. Colin

    Which of the following groups believes that an invisible being in the sky is watching their every move and will punish them if they are bad:

    (a) Small children, too young to know that is silly

    (b) Delusional schizophrenics

    (c) Evangelical Christians; or

    (d) All of the above

    September 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • andrew

      Good job trying to stir the pot. See you at church Sunday hahahhah

      September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Which of the following make it their passion to try to make people miserable?:

      1. Miserable people.

      I'm betting you guessed Miserable people... And you're right!
      Miserable people HATE people who have a passion about anything, who laugh more than stare stoic at some TV commercial or rage on blogs. Why are they miserable? We'll multiple choice that another day!

      Oh and it has nothing to do with religion, miserable people just latch on to whatever flavor of the day it is...

      September 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Oh cnnsucks, what a thick beefy cut of irony.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Self Righteousness Is a Sin

      ...and I'll see you judgmental hypocrites at the pearly gates (Jesus)

      September 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      I have no problem at all with miserable people. I actually feel bad for them, and in my life do my best to make their lives better. But on blogs, that's just cheesy isn't it? It's only met with sarcasm, sneers, and contemptuous trolls.

      SOO, I just cite facts. Never judge less you be judged.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  8. Paul W from Santa Clara

    Brilliant commentary. Thank you for saying that. The heart of the matter however is the growing number of Evangelicals who due to Right-Wing strategy have grown distrustful of the Gov't and who are more likely to embrace the idea of replacing Democracy with Theocracy. Some people worked for 30 years to make this happen, and it may have started.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Secularist

      As the article points out, all this religion is coming from both sides, not just the republicans. It has o place in politics, if at all.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  9. thinkingriddles

    Just what we all need - a sermon from the Christian Left embedded in the media. "Live by the sword, die by the sword"???? Give me a break.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  10. Steve

    The sad thing is that Jesus would be ashamed of all these conservative politicians and evangelical religious "leaders" using him as a means to their end. These are the very people Jesus would rail against today if he were here. Politics and religion abused for narrow self-interests. Maybe it's time for true Christians to reclaim their religion from these modern day Pharisees.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • TakeNoPrisoners

      Madeline ohare bilked $$$ milions of dollars from people because she said she was an atheist and she had prayer stopped in school. she was killed for alot of gold coins she had bought with those funds and her killer said her last words were oh God. only fitting for the old hag. wonder what all of you atheist on here will say for your last words???????????????? maybe you will say oh devil. haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

      September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Steve

      So what is your point TakeNoPrisoners? Are you assuming that I'm not Christian because I criticize modern day evangelical leaders? Criticism not allowed? Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his time. Are you saying it's ok for Christians to bilk people of their money because they will be forgiven on their deathbed if they repent and athiests won't?

      There are bad people in every walk of life. Your reply adds nothing to the discourse except to remind me of what Ghandi said about Christians: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

      September 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  11. Kelvin Thera

    God is the root of all evil.

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

      No, money is the root of all evil but god is a close second.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Kelvin Thera

      Actually, a mans belief in God, and his false claims of a special relationship with him is.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Ezra

      religion is the root of all evil. God doesn't exits. But, i still like money better.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  12. ovillaman

    I guess it's better to trust our destiny into the hands of the godless heathens than to vote for someone who's faith is strong enough to speak about it.

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

      No, it is MUCH better to trust somebody who, in the 21st Century, still believes in Bronze-Age Middle Eastern sky gods.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Giant1

      I agree. Goddless hethens over religious nuts any time.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Secularist

      Colin, Here-here. Belief in a "one true god" is no more ridiculous than belief in Zeus, Superman, or unicorns.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Ovlla, I wholeheartedly agree, without the sarcasm.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • William Demuth

      ovillaman

      Faith in what? Modernity? Reality? Democracy? Morality? Community? Justice?

      Your God is not a panacea for poor policy.

      If all you use to weigh your vote is religious faith, then we are truly mortal enemies, and you are a sheep ripe for the fleecing.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Ezra

      Heeeey....the GodlessHeathen party...I like it. Where do I register? The debates will be a hoot!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  13. mdp1

    what iswrong in using GOD. Only stupid liberals don't like the word GOD. they do not like USA because they don't like to use the word GOD in pledge of L. No wonder USA is in trouble.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Secularist

      I sure as heck am not liberal and I don't want god in the pledge, or on our money, or anywhere else for that matter. People should keep their supernatural beliefs to themselves.

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

      Wow, you managed to use the word GOD 3 times and USA twice in such a short post. Pass the flag and the apple pie.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  14. Ellis Island

    Dear Rick and Michelle,
    I did not ask you to discriminate against immigrants, gays/lesbians, the poor, the sick and infirm, and to applaud the number of your executions. I also did not ask you to run for President. I did, however, ask you to run....I AM coming for you.

    Love, GOD

    September 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  15. ralk

    Nope keep that going...we need GOD for our lives and this country...this liberal writer doesn't like it when GOD is brought into our lives...he is a shamed of himself that is why.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  16. Secularist

    Thanks for writing this... As an atheist, all this religion talk really drives me nuts. I tend to swing republican only because I prefer their economic policy. I hate that it is also the party of religious zealots. I really don't want to have to vote for Obama, but I can only handle so much of this righteousness, telling people how to live their private lives garbage. Of course the Democrats are just as disrespectful to free thinkers, what with their national day of prayer participation, etc. Perhaps an atheistic libertarian candidate would get elected some day.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • andrew

      As long as you don't say the word god then I'm ok with you telling me how to run my life????;????? Boy that made sense...........

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

      andy – judge not lest ye be judged, hypocrite

      September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  17. Mike in Montana

    The Democratic Party better get smart, real quick, because President Barack Obama is going to be a one-term President. I have asked almost all of my freinds, who voted for President Barack Obama in the last election and they all said and I quote.., "I voted for Senator Barack Obama in the last election for the presidency and will NOT be voting for him, again, (period)." The Democratic Party better bring out thier two or three popular top guns or heavy hitters now and start campaigning for the presidency, and before the Democratic Party Convention. Because I value my friends and neighbors and how they think and feel, and their NOT going to vote for President Barack Obama, again. The only one in his cabinet, that I can think of, to run and win against the Republican Party is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mike in Montana

    September 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Mike in Montana

      Mike, you live in Montana.

      I have more people within five miles of me than you have in your whole state.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Ezra

      Mike. Do you live near the Uni-Bomber's shack perchance?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  18. William Demuth

    Melvin Belli

    Thats a name from WAY back!

    Bet you didn't know he was in a Star Trek episode!

    September 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Melvin Belli

      William:

      No, I didn't know that... but not surprising - he did love the spotlight. Not sure how his name popped into my head - all the bluster, I guess.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Melvin Belli

      I believe he was the Gorgon, on the episode "All of the children"

      How worthless is that bit of fact. Been stuck on a brain cell for like 40 years

      September 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  19. Alex in NJ

    the sad thing is that the TEA Party did not begin as a religious movement. It began actually a a very very Libertarian movement focused almost exclusively on economic issues. Your original TEA Party supporter was most likely to be a Ron Paul supporter who detested the big government Neo-Conservativism of Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Then, somewhere along the way the Religious Right backed quietly by the Neo-Conservative Globalists came along and hijacked the movement. That is why many Libertarian leaning Republicans like myself have left the movement, and are now upset by it.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The Nazi party started as a drinking and hunting club.

      We all know how that turned out!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  20. J.C

    The founding fathers did not base the country on the bible.

    “Lighthouses are more useful than churches” – Benjamin Franklin

    “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” – Benjamin Franklin

    “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it” – John Adams

    “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” – Thomas Jefferson

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

      Too bad you speak through others words and not you own.

      God bless.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Self Righteousness Is a Sin

      adrew – those are historical facts; but that never gets in the way of Tea Party thinking, eh?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • William Demuth

      andrew

      I believe that is called a "quote"

      Probably hasn't made it out to your neck of the woods yet.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Kelvin Thera

      I wonder how many times andrew has quoted the bible. I smell a hypocrite.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Simon

      "To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be" -Thomas Jefferson

      "I have attended public worship in all countries and with all sects and believe them all much better than no religion."
      – John Adams

      "I therefore beg leave to move - that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning." -Benjamin Franklin (to the Continental Congress)

      See how easy it is to just pull out quotes that support your position? Yup.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • julie

      Simon, I know evangelical christians are notoriously literal-minded, but take a look at the Jefferson quote again. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement for taking Jesus as the Son of God and your personal savior. Read between the lines, man. He's saying that if you wanna call yourself a Christian, just do what the man said. The fairy tales, the virgin birth, the resurrection, is all a bunch of nonsense. So if a you want to be a Christian like jefferson, you have to follow the man's teachings. And that means that if you say you're a Christian, and you say you want to be President, then you can't crow about having executed more than 200 people and sleep like a baby every night. It's just not Christian. Sorry.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.