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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. bill

    The Earth was not created in seven days, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deeply misguided.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Secularist

      Six days... He rested on the seventh...

      September 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  2. Colin

    You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do, has the same political views as you do and wants your candidate to be elected.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • gravis

      You mean God hates my neighbor too?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • A Theist

      Love that quote. Truth.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  3. Aerin

    Get your god out of my Government.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • William Demuth

      And your Priest out of the Altar Boy

      September 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Secularist

      Here-here! And off my money, and out of my Pledge, and out of my oaths.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • hippypoet

      atleast you realize its YOUR government.... its a government by the people for the people... kinda implies that we should be happier with it, yet here we all are moaning over it instead!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  4. Allan

    For those of you who say "What's the big deal?" Obviously, you havent been paying attention to the religious right's "plan for America" Islamophobia, Dominionism, gay rights, abortion, theocracy. It is all very scary stuff to those who don't believe.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • hippypoet

      right, its scary to those who do as well... the insanely religious will ruin this world past its already ruined state!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Frank

      Sure its sucks but its no different then any other social/economic philosophy that tries to impose its values on others by taking away individual liberties and freedom. To me this is no different then those on the left that want to push their egalitarian ideology onto us. Either way its a form of control and a loss of individual liberties.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  5. hippypoet

    i have put some thought into this country and i came to a very odd end.... we as a nation are comparible to an ancient city, sodom – thats if god exists... now in the "good" book god was displeased with sodom and wiped it clean... thats of course after Lot got out with his two daughters then had sweet love with them while completely drunk – sounds fun... wheres our fun? was Lot punished? NO! only his mind kept his punishment alive, there was no magic thing that came down to uphold "god's law"

    September 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  6. Puppet

    What...perhaps it doesn't work for you or many others, but you are a single vote. If it doesn't get votes, what politician touches it? There are many it does matter to. Kennedy...he didn't want to touch religion because he was Catholic and that was feared tpo work against him. So wonderful speech but designed to deflect – every wonderful speech is designed to reduce what we do not want, give us what we do so once in office the person can do as he wants (hasn't been a she yet becasue we still are not ready for that for some reason.)

    September 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  7. hmmmmi

    they believe in the god of their making.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  8. gravis

    I'm not religious and I'm a democrat. That said, I would like to see Sarah Palin's burning bush.

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

      I dig

      She raises my Christ

      September 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  9. Grady

    Why does God only to talk to certain people...why can't he appear on a special edition of Larry King Live and let us all know who to vote for.

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

      Because only a few of us are that crazy

      September 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Demuth–

      Does He talk to you?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • William Demuth

      sortakinda

      He used to text, but couldn't afford unlimited anymore.

      He told me he would text Justin Bieber, and we are all to do whatever he says.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Erik

      Because Larry retired.

      But your point is well noted; until god appears publicly, he can be ignored

      September 14, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  10. nobody

    Sure god called him...it was a wrong number.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  11. Jay

    CNN...
    Today the Communist News Network states, "Don’t be fooled by candidates’ God talk" and "More Americans trust Obama on economy over Republicans in Congress" Seriously...Communist News Network or Comedy News Network... I guess you're "Bi-News"

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

      Yeah, and their video article about the millions you wouldn't survive if it weren't for big government... CNN is pretty darned liberally slanted... More so recently.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Kenneth

      Well, then, if CNN's "slant" bothers you so much, bye.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Rick

      Communist News Network.....wow, that was really clever.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Secularist

      Kenneth, LOL... Unlike most CNN readers, I like to get my news from multiple sources, noting that each one has its own slant...

      September 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • William Demuth

      If you REALLY want to see how whacked we ALL are, just watch the BBC.

      They are TERRIFIED of us, like a crazy drunken relative that you KNOW is gonna stir up grief over the holidays

      September 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  12. Jim Marler

    Read the book....... Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt....it is an excellent read and he has some good points for the US and England.

    In fact he hits the nail on the head about wages and what is happening in the country.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  13. Henry Miller

    I have little confidence in anyone who makes such great displays in "faith" in the philosophical equivalent of the Easter Bunny.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jim Marler

      Mr. Miller you are 100% right......in your post.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Bob Jojo

      You better pray you're correct, Mr. Miller...;)

      September 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Colin

      Henry, what bojo means is that a large part of the Christian superst.ition is the absurd notion that their Bronze Age sky-god will burn you for all eternity unless you believe the same thing they do. Dark Ages nonsense.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Colin, I think you're repeating yourself. Repeating yourself.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Douglas

      Been there... we endured eight years of Bush governing from the pulpit and his questionable record speaks for itself.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Henry Miller

      Bob Jojo– That's what Blaise Pascal recommended in the eighteenth century. 🙂

      September 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  14. Magruber

    I think the more insulting thing is that people tend to forget that there are other Religions. Theres this constant push for the decrease in seperation of church and state, but the question is, whose church? Your Church? My Church? If you bring in God and Jesus, you also have to bring in Buddha, Moses, Joseph Smith, Zenu, Ala, Mohammad, and even Master Yoda.
    Keep Religion out of the White House and keep it in the Home or Places of Worship.

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

      We could all do well with a little more Master Yoda in our lives.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Rick

      Not to mention all the variants of christianity

      September 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • lip

      Whoaaaaaa there pardner. Don't be going and using logic around here. You'll confuse people.

      It's all Obama's fault. What was the question again?

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

      I agree 100%. I was raised in a Christian household, but I am not a "practicing Christian." However, I grew up around these ideals and even I am offended when I hear all of their religious ranting. We want a good leader, and to do that in such a blended country, you need to leave your God out of it. No matter who it is. With all of the religious/political based problems that the world struggles with, it shocks me that these techniques are still being used in election campaigns.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  15. PappaZ

    Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach...

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

      Well, who taught them how to "do?"

      September 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  16. Radhu

    Not to worry. Buddhists have compassion for all, including Bible thumpers.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I like Buddists, they taste like chicken!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  17. Bob Jojo

    And you quote JFK who was screwing so many women that he was wearing a back brace when he had his head blown off? The shock will come for all of you when a Bible believing, God fearing Christian is elected in 11/12...happy days are here again!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

      BobJojo: Yep, nothing better than running a country like a religion....

      September 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Douglas

      Sure. Happy Days... just like during The Crusades when this wonderful religion of yours was forced on the world at the point of a sword. If that's your God, I want no part of him.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Bob Jojo

      That's happened when, Rick? When Clinton came on "what's her name's" dress?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • mightaswellbe

      NOT!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Bob Jojo

      ;)...you people are screwed!!!!!!!!! Hahahahaha!!!!!!!!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • lip

      Lord, please save me from your followers.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  18. Evan Blaisdell

    Andrew: Here we go again. You said, "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." Though the core concepts have NOT changed in decades, scientific theories "change every year" because more evidence lets us refine our model of how the world works. Scientists try to disprove each other every day. You religious folk start with what you want to be true, distort evidence to fit it, and never change despite the fact that you've never been right in history.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Bob Jojo

      Evolution may be true...you can't spell correctly...

      September 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jim Marler

      Good post.....100% on target.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • u7string

      It's surprising how many people do not understand how science and scientific theories work. It's like they think scientists are just taking wild guesses and going with whatever makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside. Hmmmm, something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside without any evidence, don't they have a word for that?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • sortakinda

      How did candy bars, ice cream and soda evolve? Oh, that's right SOMEBODY had to start a chain of development. So different with human evolution?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • u7string

      What also surprises me is how the religious will say, well, look at how complex the universe is, it is obviously something designed, and could only have come from a designer. Wouldn't an almighty designer who can make something from nothing be even more complex than what was created. Doesn't that logic that mean there is a "super" designer who made the designer? And then a "super super" designer...

      September 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  19. Carter

    Your kidding us that Carter was bible quoting Sunday school teacher, right? The guy was a soft spoken, nuclear engineer. The aside from he and Ron Paul, the others ACTUALLY believe is this stuff!

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

      I thought Carter was a peanut farmer.

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

      I so have to say Carter has some cojones for speaking out against the policies of Israel, who so many people in the country treat as infallible. (See "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid")

      September 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Kenneth

      No kidding. He is actually quite strong in his faith. And genuine, something this crop of clods is not.

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

      After graduate studies in nuclear physics at Union College in Schenectady, New York, Carter was selected by Admiral Hyman Rickover to serve as engineering officer of the Sea Wolf, America's second nuclear submarine. He went back to his family farm after his father passed away.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Carter

      One more thing, I'd never say he was a great president, But the guy is a real class act as an American. Start to finish and I find those that would disagree to not really know the facts. Not saying that anyone here thinks so.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  20. Your Take on My Take

    So what is the point of this article again?

    As usual Theists believe in what they believe.
    Atheists belive what they don't believe in.

    No one seems to be swinging,.Each one is screaming louder than the other on whether the founding fathers were Christian or not.

    Conversions based on this article anyone?

    September 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Carl, Secaucus, NJ

      Not quite. I saw people on this thread pointing out that Jesus Christ spoke against praying so as to make sure other people can hear you, which is what the article was getting at–politicians making a show of their faith. The argument isn't just between believers and non-believers.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Dan

      I'm not screaming at any one are you? Believe in what ever you want but don't get in my face!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • sortakinda

      How DARE you be a voice of reason in the midst of this rabble?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Yes, I now worship Zoroastor!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:02 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.