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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. John

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6HstbCWRoo&w=640&h=360]

    September 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • ....

      GARBAGE ALERT – Don't bother viewing click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

      September 16, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  2. Azathoth

    Never vote based on "religion". Get real all the candidates are lying to you to steal that vote. Vote with your conscience based on the platforms the candidates run on. Hmm on second thought, anyone with any sense wouldn't vote for any of them then =D

    September 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  3. David Johnson

    @dmjk

    If god is all loving, all good and all just as Christians profess, how do you reconcile this with the fact, that there is a place called hell?

    How could an all good, all merciful, all just god, spend His time constructing such a place? Did he whistle while He worked?

    If god is all loving, all good, all merciful and all just...how do you reconcile this with the fact that god would burn humans for all eternity? What crime could justify such a punishment?

    Man lives a finite number of years. Only a finite number of "sins" could be committed in this finite time. How is it just to punish a finite number of sins with eternal agony?

    Christians also claim their god is all knowing (omniscient). If this is true, then He would know who will be saved and who will be damned, even before they are born. Yet, god lets them be born knowing their ultimate fate is eternal punishment. Seems wrong somehow. Maybe it's just that I am sane...

    Christians often prattle on about having a choice of accepting Christ or spending eternity in hell. This is not a choice. This is Vito Corleone making an offer that cannot be refused. Pfui!

    If you were trying to start a religion, as the New Testament authors were, wouldn't this be a good PowerPoint bullet? I mean it really couldn't hurt the membership roster, right?

    Join = Eternal Bliss

    Decline = Eternal Agony

    If a puppy peed on the floor, would you hold it over a burner, even for a second? I couldn't. Not a puppy and certainly not a human. I am more moral than your vile god.

    Like many of your fellow Christians you seem overjoyed with the idea, that people who do not agree with you will be horribly punished. You draw it like a gun. It is the better part of any argument you make. If I am wrong and there is a god and there is a Jesus...you and I may be roomies.

    Cheers!

    September 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>"Like many of your fellow Christians you seem overjoyed with the idea, that people who do not agree with you will be horribly punished. "

      David, you are the one agreeing that 100% of Christians and stupid and ignorant. How silly is that. That is right up there with 100% Hispanics, Whites, African Americans, Women, Men, Native Americans, Muslims..etc etc.... Fill in the blank and a person filled with hate will make such a blanket statement. What is wrong with with folks like you can't live with folks that think differently or look differently? Heck Clinton, Both Bush's, and the current are Christians... Go further and you add Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and how many others who are Christians.

      Let you fear and hate go dude, folks like you are what cause wars because dehumanization is always your first steps towards the final solutions.

      September 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Anon

      All christians are screwed up in the head since the cradle and upwards.

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUVXEmJRGns&w=640&h=360]

      September 15, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      That's a lot of pretty nice people. I disagree with you though, most are very level headed and decent parts of society. Some though are like the late Jerry Farwell and were very closed minded. they said things like all Athiest are screwed up in the head or that all Athiest are mold of society.

      You folks like that "all" word a lot.

      sigh....

      September 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @Mark from Middle River

      Actually, I was poking fun at go's statement that, "100% of Christians are stupid and ignorant" I said, "at least 100%." You can't have more than 100% of anything, Right?

      But, its good that you are making your rounds as the Moral Compass of the Blog. And so quick to judge. I like that in a compass!

      Did it ever occur to you, the people you mentioned may have been great, in spite of being believers. Sometimes people overcome their adversities. Think of what they might have achieved if they were not delusional. The two Bushes you named were proof that Christianity cannot cure idiocy. Especially in G.W.'s case.

      I have no quarrel with any religion, that is content to live in a secular nation and not try to achieve politically what Jesus has never given them by returning.

      I guess it gets mighty could in that pumpkin patch, waiting on the Jesus. I could see how it could drive people insane.

      Is He here, yet? Is He here, yet? Is He here, yet? Is He here, yet? LOL

      Cheers!

      September 15, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • David Johnson

      OOoops! Could = Cold in my comment above. Let's blame it on the beer.

      Cheers!

      September 15, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  4. Gigadee

    "Religion to the poor is truth, to the wise is false and to the rich is useful." – Seneca

    September 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  5. Patricksday

    The GOP know how to sell to the ignorant and mean spirited. And of course "God", "Prayer", "Family Values", "Pro-Life" (except for the Death Penalty-Thou Shall Not Kill), OH But They Follow "Jesus" and his teachings of Love, Peace and care of the Least of us. All Buzz Words the sheep gobble up. I would like to see them explain to Jesus how GREED and selling out of Humanity to build their own Kingdoms is part of his teachings. Its all a lie by Evil people who could care less about Jesus. Amen

    September 15, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • EnergyBeing3

      Agreed fully. It's one of the greatest CONS and SCAMS of our human species. Once all the "Parental Reward and Punishment" psychological control factors are exposed, anyone with a basic IQ can see it's just a way of control and oppression with some clever "warm fuzzies" about kindness and compassion. You have to remember that human of the last 100 years are VASTLY different from the humans of over a thousand years ago living in terror and fear without basic psychology. Primitive. We as a species don't need religion as much as we are now needing our technology and science to help support and human species. The Christian faith will one day be a dead religion such as Latin is a dead language.

      September 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  6. Infidelio

    Perry felt called by God to run for president. So, let's look at this rationally: God the creator of the entire universe seems to focus on very mundane matters. He singles out our galaxy from over 100 billion galaxies. Then within this galaxy of over 100 billion stars he chooses our sun with the planet earth orbiting around it. Then ignoring the billions of other people on the planet he says: "Rick, despite those $2,000 cowboy boots that you wear, I think you have the common touch. You should lead my people!" Really?

    September 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  7. Gigi

    Exactly how uneducated is the author of this article? Christians don't "confess" their faith-they "profess" it. Christians confess their sins.

    September 15, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Fordtruxdad

      He's "a committed Christian and former Baptist pastor". Do the math. }: )

      September 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • JAD

      Confess is correct. God won't save you from your poor critical reading skills. It says he is college educated and an author or a political book. I thought his article was very interesting. Perhaps your faith is blinding you?

      September 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • boris

      I'd say he's probably not a book.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  8. Stop_Gardasil_Rick

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

    (i) A simple google search would have shown this to be utterly untrue. Here is Rand Paul explaining the true origin of his name. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfQ04fmj9oc

    (ii)Ron Paul does not idolise Ayn Rand. Whilst he was somewhat influenced by her his primary influences are Murray Rothbard and Ludwig Von Mises. It wouldn't have taken much work to find this out. Sloppy journalism to say the least.

    September 15, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  9. Lucifer's Knobbly Knees

    I thought this topic would have died off by now, but nope still going.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Stop_Gardasil_Rick

      "Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul may idolize thinker Ayn Rand (even naming his son after her).."
      (i) A simple google search would have shown this to be utterly untrue. Here is Rand Paul explaining the true origin of his name. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfQ04fmj9oc
      (ii)Ron Paul does not idolise Ayn Rand. Whilst he was somewhat influenced by her his primary influences are Murray Rothbard and Ludwig Von Mises. It wouldn't have taken much work to find this out. Sloppy journalism to say the least.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  10. SecularTruther

    I would rather have someone as president who doesn't believe that the world was created by sky daddy with the snap of their fingers, the world is only 8,000 years old, the world is flat, the sun rotates around the earth, humans laged for hundreds and hundreds but.in modern times they can't make it to 200 years old, blood related brothers and sisters can have children without deformed offspring (also through incest can populated the planet with 7 billion people within a few thousand years), scared of the red boogie man who lives underground, that the only reason there is different languages is because people gathered to build a tower to see sky daddy (though It's not in the bible believers say that's why we have different ethnicities, I guess animals were helping that's why their is different breeds), etc... If we have leaders that believe this, then what else will they believe an, example could be illuminati conspiracy theorists. Waiting for Jesus to come back is not a great exit strategy for the wars either.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • dmjk

      Spoken like a true atheist. Meanwhile, have you ever heard of the saying0- "to each his own". Is it really bothering you that ppl believe in GOD- NOT SKY DADDY. Who r u to critize?. I believe that politicians should represent all believers and even your close minded self. But, puttng dwn thos e who believe makes you absolutely intollerable and in my book not worth the time or lack there of, of compassion or brain cells. who do u think u r?

      September 15, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • claybigsby

      "Who r u to critize?"

      First amendment rights....

      September 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  11. Byrd

    Required reading for all Christians, fundamentalists and republicans: Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's Divine Comedy.

    There will be a test...later. And you all might want to get a dictionary and thesaurus, because there are some big words in there that will confuse you. Don't worry, the word thesaurus is also in the dictionary.

    September 15, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  12. Woody

    This new crop of religious nutjobs couldn't hold a candle to Pat Robertson in the nutjob department. Somewhere, old Pat must be drooling (literally and figuratively) at the Presidential opportunity he could have if he were, say, a few decades younger.

    September 15, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  13. Byrd

    Rick Perry has personally signed the death warrants for 234+ people, and yet the Press and republicans portray him as a person of faith, as though that in itself is some kind of redeeming value, taking for granted that they will someday be forgiven. Boy are they in for a surprise. Perhaps now you know why they bow their heads when praying: they're looking in the right direction. Those who try to fool you by looking up are already on the bottom of the pit.

    These so-called Angels are the stupidest race of beings ever created, though the Tea Party is sure giving them a run for their money.

    September 15, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  14. jimtanker

    In reply to Heavenscent from last night:

    "HeavenSent

    Jim, and what have you done lately? Oh, yes. Complain on this blog.

    Amen."

    Well, for starters I faithfully served my country for 24 years in the army as both a Tank Commnader and a Master Gunner including serving in the 82nd Airborne Division. After retireing from the army I decided to continue to help our men and women in unform and am now back in the Middle East, a place where you probably have never been to and have absolutely no clue about the people or culture of the area.

    So, what have you done lately?

    September 15, 2011 at 2:08 am |
    • Jeff

      Jim you have to ignore Heaven Sent or just plain have some fun with her. She is a depressed lonely woman who is addicted to her version of her man made truth. She doesn't care about others only herself and her ego.

      Thanks for serving our country!

      September 15, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  15. Al

    I would almost rather vote for Benny Hinn or Peter Popoff than vote for Rick Perry.

    September 15, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • Liqmaticus

      If you actually would vote for someone like Benny Hinn please do the US of A a favor and don't vote. Thanks.

      September 15, 2011 at 5:11 am |
  16. JFritz

    omg, we are too nuts. How did we get this crazy? Time for the flying spaghetti monster to take charge here.

    September 15, 2011 at 1:29 am |
    • F.S.M.

      I'll be right there!

      September 15, 2011 at 1:46 am |
    • jimtanker

      R'amen!

      September 15, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  17. Captive Audience

    The candidate doesn't have to believe in evolution but I will not vote for someone that believes the earth has only been here for 6000 years.

    September 15, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  18. 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 15, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  19. David G

    Mike, I don't agree. I am Jewish and I'm a Republican voter. I think more Jews are chaning over to the Republican party, but I still think they are overwhelmingly Democrat from all the people I know. I wish you were right, though.

    September 14, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • Skipper

      Holy crap man.... You're a Jew and you are really going to help the "Christian" ultra-conservatives build a "Christian" theocracy? Are you nuts?

      September 14, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • JFritz

      Couldn't have said it better myself, Skipper. Holy crap!

      September 15, 2011 at 1:30 am |
    • dmjk

      @Skipper- could you please open ur mind to the thought that maybe his (David G)concern is for the country to become better regardless of religion instead of "supporting ur brother" who may not be the best person for the job? Wake up ppl. Ppl only looking out for their own is how we got into this hole in the first place- i.e. Bush and his cronys.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  20. mkjewel

    God or Gods in some religions has been worshipped for centuries. It is not a bad concept that people believe that there is a higher power. It keeps people from being self centered. You cannot separate a person from their religious beliefs, however, the founding fathers opted to keep religion out of government while preserving all the different religions that were already functioning here at that time. The government cannot establish one religion over the other and that is the meaning of the first amendment. It restricts the government. You cannot legislate morality. Believe what you want, it is YOUR choice/will. I would rather live an upright life carried by faith and love presuming there is a God, than not and find out there is.

    September 14, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • DARTH VADER

      faith is just a lazy man's wish,you know

      September 14, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • I_get_it

      mkjewel: "I would rather live an upright life..."

      Me too, but I don't consider it upright (honest) to make up a god and its wishes, demands, likes, hates, punishments and rewards, and say that it 'talks' to me and that I have a 'relationship' with it.

      September 14, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • tallulah13

      mkjewel, I agree with much of what you say, but you don't need religion to be a good person.

      September 15, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • jimtanker

      You can be good without god. In fact being good without a god is an even more "upright" stance to have. No promise of a reward for doing good and no threat of punishment if you dont believe in a particular fairy tale out of many.

      Doing good for goodness sake and for humanity is a much better position to have than doing good because your god says so. If you are doing good becaues you want to then why do you need a god in the first place?

      September 15, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • chad

      98% of the posters on CNNs Belief Blog are atheists, amazingly angry, vitriolic, disrespectful atheists..

      September 15, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • go

      chad, you can't even accurately assemble basic statistics from readily available data. You must be one of those stupid, ignorant Christians. 100% of Christians are stupid and ignorant.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • dmjk

      @go- good luck in hell with those gasoline underpants.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • David Johnson

      @go

      You said: "100% of Christians are stupid and ignorant."

      Yep, at least 100%.

      Cheers!

      September 15, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Always love it when ppl give absolutes. Shows how stupid they are.

      September 15, 2011 at 3:47 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.