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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. Ezra

    William, yes, I quit them when the dude with the little mustache showed up talking about Jews and now they upset me.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  2. American Doc

    First thing I ask of any leader that I will be subject to, "Is he/she a true Christian?" This is the most important question as a yes answer relates to every policy and decision a person will make. Separation of church and state was meant to protect an individuals freedom and free will. God started this himself by giving people the option of having faith without standing in front of you and forcing your allegiance. But what it doesn't suggest, is that a person separate thier faith from thier political agenda and decisions. Thats like suggesting that you shouldn't use your education, experiences, or brain to make a decision. If the
    Bible is correct, which I believe it is, then all things work for the glory of God. So, if God wanted Obama to be the president for now, so be it. Obviously he can use him for some purpose, even if just to wake up apathetic Christians. And we are wide awake with our pens in hand just waiting for ballots. Oh yeah, we will be watching with cameras everywhere people vote for fraud. Exciting times!!

    September 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Secularist

      I hope you aren't really a doctor if you are spouting this belief without proof. I want my doctor to be a scientist, an atheist. Sadly, there are all too many overly religious doctors.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • American Doc

      If I only believed in things I could prove, then I would never treat a patients pain. I would never trust anyone. I would never love anyone. Faith is valuable for more than just religious discussions. Your athiest doctor would be missing the greatest tool in his bag, prayer. Don't think the doctor alone is responsible for healing. We run into the end of our medical knowledge and abilities every day, even with the most up to date procedures, medicine, and information. The first and last tool is prayer. There are no atheists in foxholes, nor are there athiest doctors standing over a critically ill child dying in front of them.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  3. palatot

    With this god crap, it is no wonder why the civilized world is getting less and less comfortable with America. Bush was bad enough, now Perry. If this guy is elected, it will be the end chapter for American influence in the world and a definite proof that the US is a failed society. And no one will ever miss us.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  4. Nancy Chattanooga TN

    As a transplanted northerner now living in the bible belt; I believe that your religious beliefs should be personal and private. Not to be worn on your sleeve as a badge of honor.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Colin

      I have an atheist tatoo. That count? It is the scarlet A with "Proud Atheist" under it.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Bruce H

      Jesus had a word to describe those people who proclaim their piety on street corners to crowds, recorded in the Bible in Matthew 6:6.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  5. Andy H.

    If republicans who really believe in and want mercy from this god maybe they should actually follow the teachings of jesus vs quote scripture. Just saying.

    – A

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

      Amen

      September 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  6. mightaswellbe

    Dictatorship of the Pupit, that is what the religious right want for all of us.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  7. albert

    These make pretend Christians crack me up. They are so far removed from what Christ taught, it isn't even funny. He taught his disciples to pray for God's kingdom, and that they are to be no part of the world. They are making a mockery of God. Please remind us what political party Jesus belonged to? The scripture at Matthew 7:23-26 couldn't be more true.

    As a side note, please explain why you all celebrate pagan holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc.), When they go directly against what the Bible teaches. It's no wonder so many people are turning away from God. It is your hypocrisy and lies.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  8. IamGOD

    I'm praying for the first ATHEIST/AGNOSTIC president...

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

      He or she would get my vote.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Colin

      And mine. australia and chile have done it recently.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • McJesus

      RAMEN

      September 14, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Anotheralt

      Meh, being atheist doesn't make someone more likely to be a good leader by default. Let me hear this person's economic and social policies, and then we'll talk. Worship whatever deity or not as you like.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  9. What?

    @Shawn,

    Provide examples of how you are personally persecuted by Christians. How are YOU impacted daily by a Christian's belief? You are no more affected by Christians than I am by the non-believer neighbor, the Hindu person next door, or the Muslim people down the street. Take the emotion out of your argument

    September 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Colin

      Hmmm, let's see.

      (i) a woman's right to choose;
      (ii) use of condoms and other contraceptives;
      (iii) basic $ex education for teens;
      (iv) teaching evolution in school;
      (v) assisted suicide;
      (vi) gay marriage;
      (vii) treating drug abuse as principally a medical issue;
      (viii) population control;
      (ix) buying alcohol on a Sunday; and
      (x) stem cell research.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • albert

      I for one am offended by the lies that you so-called Christians propagate. Most of your teachings are Pagan, and based on Greek Mythology. They are not Bible based. Please explain Christmas & Easter (From the Bible), Jesus and his disciples did not celebrate these things. Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, all lies. And yet you teach and practice them as truth. And that is just a small example. I consider that to be persecution.

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

      Well here in Texas you can't buy beer or wine before noon on Sunday. What is that if not some christian blue law hangover?

      And if I have it right you have to profess belief in a supreme being if you want to hold a public office in the state of Texas.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Ben

      (xi)annoying biblethumpers disturbing me by knocking on my door sundays and even other days

      September 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • julie

      Think about that for a minute. Would you be happy if say, all of our elected officials were Muslim, and suddenly they decided that nobody needs to have off on December 25th, because who needs that day for a holiday, but Ramadan, now there's a holiday! Or let's say everyone running the country was an Orthodox Jew, and you had to hear your elected officials repeatedly claim that G-d (because they are not allowed to say it you know) runs the show, and they only listen to him. Or Hindus, etc etc. Put that scenario in your head and now think about turning on your TV and listening to every single politician proclaim the One True Faith. Kind a scary, isn't it?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  10. Hanes

    What should we be doing while the Republican Party evolves into the American Taliban?

    September 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • McJesus

      Start stocking up on black hoods, alligator clips, copper wire, power inverters with potentiometers, and lots of tubular vegetables.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  11. Tea Party Daily Mirror

    A spokesperson today said candidate Michele Bachmann, having recently left her church behind, is converting to Islam.

    Bachmann is also leaving her latent-gay, flaccid husband Marcuthhh so that she can be free to pursue musician Yousef Islam (Cat Stevens). Bachmann is guoted as saying "I've always liked his music. You know what they say about musical men and their trombones..." and "As a Muslim and POuTUS, I could solve our terrorism problems once and for all. There's no way Al Kaida and his countrymen will attack a country with a Muslim leader. This will help me get elected in other ways too. In fact, it might be the only way I can get more than the teabagger vote and pull in anything from Obama's liberal base."

    Yousef Islam (Stevens) was heard to say "No way, dude, no friggin way. That leathery old haggis wouldn't have made it as my groupie even when she was 20, no matter how good her oratory skills are."

    September 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Ben

      stop it. stop it. I can't...stop...laughing....

      September 14, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • albert

      That is funny! Are you using the same book of lies that she is using? Lol.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • SciFiChickie

      OMG ma..ke.. ahhh it ooohh stop ROFLMAO

      September 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  12. clarke

    I don't have a problem with anyone trusting in a God of their choosing. But church and state are like oil and water.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  13. Praying

    Praying for you that is.....

    September 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  14. James

    i have a jesus statue that bleeds dollar bills.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  15. James

    hell needs good people like myself. heaven sounds like a flop house.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  16. Soporifix

    It's always going to be easier to talk about religion than to talk about anything real that actually affects us.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Nate (Seattle, WA)

      Religion does affect us. Religion affects us when half the country thinks abortion should be illegal because they think that humans are infused with a soul at the moment of conception, and idea not supported by ANYTHING but religion.

      Religion affects us, when we ignore overwhelming scientific data on climate change, because people think God gave us the right to do whatever we wanted to the earth, or that it's all ending as soon as Jesus comes back anyway.

      Religion affects us, when we get involved in six (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia) foreign wars at the same time, because of what boils down to a class of Judeo-Christian and Islamic values.

      Religion affects us, when Americans choose not to vote for the smartest, or most capable candidates, but choose idiots like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, who don't have a full deck of cards between them, just because they spout the same cult nonsense that voters believe in.

      Sorry, but there's almost NOTHING that affects us more than religion. Nice try.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Maryann

      Nate, I think I love you. Well said, my friend.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  17. Nate (Seattle, WA)

    We live in a theocracy. Not a democracy. A theocracy.

    There is only one member of the 538 members of Congress who openly admits to not believing in God. And he was elected before that public admission was made. This is despite 15% of the country not believing in God (atheists + agnostics). Blacks and gays and jews love to complain that they're not adequately represented, but this is ridiculous. Less than 0.2% representation of 15% of the electorate?

    We cannot expect our leaders to solve our toughest problems when we narrow the choices for leaders to only those who believe in a childish fairy tale about invisible creators, who love us and yet punish us randomly, and somehow want us to succeed over all other nations on earth.

    It's just silly nonsense. Grow up, America!

    September 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Welcome th the war!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Saboth

      What is really scary is those same politicians and the people that voted them into office then decry 'religious extremism' in other countries, just as we toss bombs on them, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people while shouting "God Bless America!" I'm honestly thinking about trying to move to some other country where people are friendly, educated, and religion doesn't govern their decisions so much. Canada? Switzerland? I dunno.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  18. Gumboz1953

    God iis calling Perry to run, but he is also calling Bachmann to run .... you think maybe God is having fun with the GOP?

    September 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • I'm just sayin'

      'Governor Perry: God here. The voice in your head is not me. Take your meds.'

      September 14, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  19. GOD IS MADE UP

    MAN CREATED GOD WITH A PEN AND PAPER

    September 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Nate (Seattle, WA)

      I'm thinking some wacky tobaccy may have been involved, too.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Istherereallyadog.

      The popular GOD was made up by pen & paper & men.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  20. Bob Jojo

    Believe what you will...this is CNN, after all...I'll take my chances believing in God and winding up in a cold grave, oblivious to my surroundings, than in hell burning for eternity...your choice. Enjoy your time while here!!

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

      So bob, there have been 100 billion odd people that have ever lived. How many billions is your sky-god currently burning? Must be a lot. All those murders, rapists, people who miss the sabbath, atheists and others who reject him?

      Hitler made it to 6 million, but your god must have whipped him! Your god makes Hitler look like a flower girl. He won't even give them time off for good behavior. An eternity in hell. Your god has reached a level of complete babarity never seen before. He is a cosmic ba$tard.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Bob Jojo

      Allah reminds you to choose wisely.

      Besides, hell is just being born again as a Mormon

      September 14, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • A Theist

      Will there also be Oxygen in Hell, Bob? Are there also immortal, fireproof worms in Hell? It's statements like yours that make nonbelievers say, "Oh look, Christians actually believe that if we're bad, we'll be sent to God's oven for an eternal baking." There will be no literal "burning" in Hell.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • albert

      Eternal torment in hell is a lie based on Greek mythology. The first book of the Bible (Genesis), explains clearly what the "Wages of sin" are. God never threatened Adam & Eve with Hellfire. From a logical standpoint, please explain how something invisible burns?!? If God is love, explain the justice in having someone burn forever after living only 70-80 years. Also explain where you get to play God and judge people?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • McJesus

      If hell is FAR underground, then like was already said. There is likely a severe lack of oxygen. I suspect we aren't dealing with normal 'fire and brimstone' here. We are dealing with extremely high temperatures and pressures. So plasma. It must be a lake of superheated plasma that the 'bad guys' take a swim in for eternity right? I'd think that after a few thousand years even the bad guys would get bored with the same old unimaginative torture techniques and be like "Dude. Satan. Man. At least do something different. Like send me to the freezing arctic and tickle my feet with goose feathers or something. Come on buddy"

      September 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • JT

      Only two choices...belief in a god or not? Which god? Must you be part of a religion? Which one, out of thousands? If Christian, Catholic or Protestant? Which denomination out of thousands is the correct one? I pity you.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:31 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.