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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. Bob

    DO YOU LIKE FISH STICKS?

    September 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • sortakinda

      What? Am I a gay fish?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Kanye West

      Yo, I am NOT a gay fish! Why is everybody saying I'm a gay fish? Am I a gay fish?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  2. pastafaria

    I have a hard time believing that there is even one "Christian" male on this planet who, if his wife or significant other informed him that the baby she was carrying was not his but instead was the "son of God", would do anything other than throw her out on the curb.

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

      That was the dumbest statement on this entire board as of yet. Really did you just say that???

      September 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Dude, Joseph didn't care.

      As you might recall, he earned a living working other mens wood.

      Besides, the whole Virgin thing is silly. Even if Joseph was gay, he still would have whittled the Palestinian Diva a personal massager!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Secularist

      How is that dumb thing? If it weren't for some myth in a 2000 year old book nobody would think twice about that comment. Most guys would be pretty ticked if their wife got knocked up by somebody else.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • sortakinda

      For believers, no explanation is necessary. For non-believres, no explanation could ever be enough.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • pastafaria

      @andrew Then humor me and explain how you would act in that situation.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Secularist

      My mythical being is perfect and all powerful. Obviously you could never understand that.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • DE

      Mary was not a virgin. The Hebrew word describing Mary, “almah” does not translate as virgin, rather it means a young woman of marriageable age.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Mad Cow

      Have you never heard of Immaculate Deception?

      Ramen!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • William Demuth

      DE

      Of course it did, but why didn't the greeks make it clear before the founded Christianity!

      Just like the whole, shall not kill, or shall not murder issue.

      Because of the bad translations, 95 percent of Christians don't understand a basic commandment

      September 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • pastafaria

      My guess is that "God" is just an old Aramaic term for "boytoy".

      September 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • A Theist

      Ah, for those of you who are well-versed in the Bible, you will know that an Angel visited Joseph because he was ready to do that very thing!
      I suppose if I really believed an Angel was talking to me, I'd have to at least consider what it was saying.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • pastafaria

      @A Theist So what you're saying is, in addition to being a cuckold, Joseph was a drug addict.

      September 14, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  3. Chuck U Farley

    Well said...

    September 14, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  4. Diane

    I am so sick of the mixing of religion and politics I could just scream. I used to attend church but the growing support of the religious right turned me off completely. Under Bush we saw the mixing of religion, nationalism and military might which gets downright scary. Isn't that our concern with terrorists?

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

      Maybe you prefer planes being thrown into buildings?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Jim Marler

      Diane...you are absolutely right. Beware of all this God Talk from the group of politicians. It only demonstrates how little they know how to manage business and the Ill Fares of this land.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Secularist

      Uh, sassypants... Perhaps you forgot that those planes were flown into buildings in the name of, you guessed it, god... Jesus, Allah, Zeus, unicorn, fairy, whatever your parents told you the mythical creature was called when you were a kid. Some people just never outgrew that belief. They probably like to put teeth under their pillows in hopes of getting cash too...

      September 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • mikepapa1

      Whether you and the other liberals who post here like it or not religion has always been a part of this Great Country. The United States was founded on Judeo Christian beliefs and they are a part of everything that makes this the Greatest Country ever known. And that includes politics. God Bless the United States of America.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  5. who????

    little bo peep. lost her sheep, oh is that a guy?

    September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  6. Dorkus Maximus

    I don't care what they think of Jesus, just keep the trains on time.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  7. andrew

    I don't believe in democrats. I actually don't believe that you retards think we don't have a god. Hahahhah this great. Can't prove evolution. Changes every year. Can't prove big bang, agian changes every year ......... Let's see if we can't see it and its not on utube it is not real.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • u7string

      andrew is the kind of guy who if he lived in the 16th century would believe the Earth is flat because the church told him so regardless of what science said otherwise. FYI, your entire 21st century life is based on science. If you want to wear your "God colored" glasses and ignore reality, go for it.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • SciFiChickie

      "Can't prove evolution. Changes every year." Why don't you try actually finding something out on your own, instead of believing everything that your told, just because someone else said it does not make it true, or factual. The science behind evolution does NOT change every year it is ADDED to with each new archeological find. You never know maybe one day science could prove the exsitance of God... just maybe not the one you were told about in Sunday school

      September 14, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Ezra

      somebody needs his meds adjusted.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  8. Kath1958

    Finally, someone says out loud what I've been thinking. The "invisible guy in the sky" rhetoric is insulting. Get God and lobbyists out of campaigning and out of Washington. What did Lincoln say? "When I do good I feel good and when I do bad I feel bad, and that's my religion." Agreed.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Secularist

      Nice one.

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

      Anyone who uses the words 'insulting to me' is not wise enough to warrant an opinion.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      Did your fav-o-rite Yankee say those words "before" or "after" the Southerners whooped his britches off at the fisrt battle of Manassas? I seem to remember reading in my tenth-grade history book where Lincoln called the Northern masses to a "Day of Prayer, Fasting and even a little soul-searching." Even the god-less yankee-in-chief needed a little Divine Guidance, after all.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  9. DE

    To "secularist"; In politics you have to fight fire with fire.

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

      So, "My imaginary friend can beat up your imaginary friend?"

      Obama may not be as far off the deep end religiously as Perry, but he sure calls upon his faith in the supernatural quite a bit.

      I would rather see all religion out of all politics. Let's focus on the issues.

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

      @DE Now I understand the motive behind Rick Perry's prayer rally.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • sassypants

      Secularist, there is no super in Obama's natural.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  10. Seth Hill of Topanga, California

    "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." As an atheist, I don't know if Christians are supposed to follow this command from Jesus. Any Christians who can help me understand?

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

      Since you are an admitted atheist, I'll go ahead and tell you that you are in no position to quote a bible verse to a Christian. They know their faith better than you do.

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

      Wow, so now, if you're not in the club, you can't even read the book....

      September 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • William Demuth

      sassypants

      No you don't my freind. I have made Priests swear, Rabbi's laugh, and Evangelicals cry for their mommies from the drubbings they get!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Jim in Florida

      To you need to understand in order to cherry pick scripture to score a secularist point or are you searching for peace in your life. The article and many posters here use the old bait and switch trick as an excuse to attack people who believe in the Creator and in his Son Jesus Christ.

      If you are opposed to Christianity as I believe your post indicates your heart is hardened and no explnation will be useful.

      For those of you who wail "take Christianity out of Washington DC" I have news for you.

      Christian principles were taken out fo Washington DC a long , long time ago – and yes, those chickens will eventually come home to roost.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Know What

      sassypants:

      Individual Christians might know more about their own individual faith (small 'f'), but they do not know more about their religion, in general.

      "Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions." - http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1745/religious-knowledge-in-america-survey-atheists-agnostics-score-highest

      September 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Ezra

      Ok, from now on The Origin Of Species is off limits to Christians. That's it. If the rest of use can't read or quote from your stupid book of myths you can't read Darwin anymore. And we all know that you do – in the bathroom when your moms not looking.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      Someday you ladies and gentlemen(Demoth, Mr. Hill and company) will stand speechless and awe-stricken before the Great White Throne of Jesus Christ. And, by the way, Mr. Demoth, this Christian doesn't feel any compunction to "cry for his mommy". I "know Him in whom I have believed." I have witnessed a few undeniable miracles firsthand. For example, a dear old lady I know(who, BTW, is still living) was healed of a cyst on her upper right shoulder. I was about nine or ten years old at that time. My Mother took me to a service where there was a "faith-healer" preaching. The young man simply walked past this particular woman, touched her forhead and said the words:"In Jesus Name, be healed" Guess what happened? I SAW dark red blood and puss run down this woman's off-white dress when the cyst popped. I SAW this happen and so did many other people. This healing took place in Sikeston, Missouri about fall of the year 1984 or 1985. God bless you folks. I just wanted to share news of a miracle that I witnessed first-hand.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  11. Buddy

    Carter's use of religion was more referential as opposed to how the GOP uses it today, in the form of policy formation. Hey, GOP! Get your stupid religion out of my politics!

    September 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Who cares, his old lady was HOT, and she used to wear the stockings with the line up the back!

      A real shame his daughter was such a barker!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  12. Jack Horner

    Glad to see you are a FORMER Baptist pastor. You're intelligence is moving you in the right direction, much more so than the intelligence exhibited by most Christians.

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

      Another atheist who's smarter than evreyone else–or so he/she thinks.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  13. Thomas

    Former Baptist minister, huh. Read your scriptures. When Jesus appears to the world at His 2nd coming, He and His gospel is the rule of law, not the system of government we have set up.

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

      The people who wrote about the return of Jesus were positive that it would be in their life time, some only a few months after his crucifixion, not over 2,000 YEARS!!!! Get real, he's dead and not coming back, no more than Mohammad is coming back.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Got caught with your pants down?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  14. Bobby

    In response to: "Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul may idolize thinker Ayn Rand (even naming his son after her)"...

    ...hasn't Rand clarified on several occasions that he was not, in fact, named after Ayn Rand. Sorry, you're clearly not qualified to write a CNN op-ed.

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

    Only in America would candidates try to "out god" each other. And since they are conservative christians, thay are all hypocrites. This would cost a candidate an election in any other country.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      Don't forget Iran! They are trying to out-god each other there too!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  16. David Johnson

    @HeavenSent

    Spare me the myth of the Kenites. How did they make it through the flood? Another Arc, supplied by Satan? LOL

    All my choices are data driven. *smile*

    Cheers!

    September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  17. Sean

    I say we all sit back and wait for Jesus to come back... He'll know what to do!... Lets do nothing till then though.. because I'm sure god wouldn't let us down! /sarcasm

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

      We are gonna need more beer!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      Chances are, when Jesus does return, you will never know it. He will remove the very source of all your angst,the True Believers. Let me tell you who those believers are: they are those who have been Baptised in His Name and filled with His Spirit. If you know anyone who fits this category you just might ought to tell them Good-bye. The time "has come when men will not endure sound doctrine, but will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears..." The time has come when men will be "Lovers of their own selves, back-biters, HATERS OF GOD, disobediant to parents, unthankful, unholy, truce-breakers, WITHOUT NATURAL AFFECTION.".....the time has come when we have entered a world of "They shall turn away their ears from the Truth"...the time has come when "Mens' hearts are failing them for fear and from looking on the things that are coming on the world"...The time has come when people are "falling away". Yes, of course Churches are sitting empty. Jesus said "Nevertheless, when the Son of Man cometh will He find faith on the earth?" The answer to this question is more obvious everyday: people we thought would NEVER throw in the towel are doing so now. Yes, ther will be only a "Very small remnant" who will be saved.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  18. calm analysis

    "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"

    I cannot necessarily speak to the "confessional politics" argument here, but invoking God and citing Scripture in politics has been going on for much longer than three decades in America. I am not sure that this has "dominated" politics either, but I do think the author of this article ought to confer with some of his colleagues who are astute historians. Invoking God and citing Scripture goes back to the very beginning of U.S. politic and has played an important role over centuries, not decades. The reason that it seems to be "dominating" politics now is that there has been a concerted attempt by many to rid political discourse of any reference to God or Scripture–especially over the past three decades (but starting before this). But it was not this way in the beginning.

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

      And how is that relevant or even sensible? You say this religious idiocy has been turned up full blast because of a few religious people being caught violating the First Amendment?
      Yet religion has nothing to do with governing a nation. Religion has nothing to do with common sense or wisdom. Religion exists in opposition to wisdom and common sense. You want to use it to rule a nation, yet whenever you get a chance you screw things up even worse. Your "calm" idiocy is nothing more than an extremist position.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • calm analysis

      I believe if you took the time to research my statements, you will find that they are factual. In that regard, I was just really commenting on the author's reference to (just) three decades.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  19. Dakota

    Funny, God told me to ignore all of those right wing religious nuts. God also told me that he did not create religion....that man did in a bid for power and prestige. God told me that he disapproves of religion, Bachmann, Perry, all of the Bushes, Rove, the Pauls (excluding St. Paul), Gingrich, Giuliani, and the Pope.

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

      If he existed he would also disapprove of all the liberals invoking him constantly as well. Did you read the entire article? It's not just the right wing...

      September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  20. Jason K

    That one quote is probably the only one you will ever hear about Ron Paul's faith and it only exists because he was specifically asked about it. He and Cain have been very careful to distance themselves from mixing religion and politics. However, "evangelicals" are a very large, rich, and powerful contingent of the American right just as athiests and agnostics are for the left, how could you blame any of them for not targeting them.

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

      I am a conservative atheist... Seriously... You would be amazed at how many atheists are conservative. I didn't say we supported the evangelicals in the republican party... Just that not all atheists are liberal.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:27 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.