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. Me

    No pun intended here, but amen. No one is asking you not to believe, but christianity should not be a presidential lithmus test.

    October 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  2. jo jo

    Well here it proves: 'many are called, few are chosen'. Now i KNOW the real meaning of that when it comes to mixing politics with religion. After a while all the politico/religious rhetoric becomes offensive to everyone.

    October 11, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  3. Malakili

    This is a no bleeping brainer that ye shouldn't be fooled by those would ASYLUM patients if we still had asylum, even though they were extremely bad. Instead of Progressing we are Digressing AKA taking a whole lot of steps backwards. Religion should never ever, ever be "bedded" by politics. Now yo know why we the people should not have allowed the government to close so many of our mental hospitals. But, hey I am just a 20 year white nerd that is somewhat philosophical and wants to major in Psychology so what would I know about this?

    October 9, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  4. Maggie

    Brian T. Kaylor writes an excellent article...and points to the truth.

    October 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  5. Byrd

    Hypocrites one and all, but that word may too difficult for most of them to either comprehend or spell.

    October 6, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Jay

      So true ! ...'called by God' , to do what? Another GWB. Wash D.C. is an occult hub of ritual and falsehood .

      October 8, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • JeZeus

      Charlatans mislead the sheep to wallow in their self-idolatry, Bigots beat them into submission, frustrated at their inability to cope due to their ignorance. Hypocrites sell them to the wolves in their lust for riches.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  6. Brit McGinnis

    I actually just blogged about this very thing. It's insulting as a Christian to see politicians using "buzzwords" from my faith to try to gain support.

    October 5, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  7. stanton


    October 3, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  8. Jason

    To all true believers, take any politician that wears their religious beliefs on their sleeves with a flinty eye. No one should be ashamed of their religious affiliation, however, mixing religion and politics is bad, because politics is money. The time Jesus really lost his cool, was at the money changers in the temple. And it is not much of a stretch to believe that anyone that prays while the cameras are rolling, is conducting business in his name, to solicit campaign donations. There are many ways someone could demonstrate themselves as a moral leader, within a secular venue. And if a candidate or political leader is noted for attending church or temple on a regular basis, so be it.

    October 2, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  9. Alyssa

    Rick Perry and the other candidates are being so religious now in their rhetoric because that's what sells amongst the Republican base. Once in the general election, where any GOP candidate will have to make their way north and westward away from the South, that same rhetoric doesn't play. In fact it's more likely to turn a Northern voter off than the effect that they intend. Make no mistake, any GOP candidate who makes it to the general election will go through a dramatic secularization, because they wouldn't stand a chance outside of the South and the Midwest with the religious talk.

    September 30, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  10. Freethinksman

    If one candidate of either party came out as not believing in a god or gods, I would have a hard time not voting for him or her.

    The simple admission that a candidate is willing to accept important precepts without sufficient evidence suggests they aren't skeptical enough to distinguish critical information from nonsense. Why do people want to elect the most powerful leader on earth based on his ability to ignore reality? This isn't just sad and confusing, it's immoral.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  11. Terry Moore

    Religion is PRIVATE..get that into your heads... Any candidate that uses it as a means to seduce some voters is committing a sin (in biblical terms) nand is behaving like a bigot (in modern terms).
    I do not care what you believe in, candidates..Icare that you know something of Politics, Economy, Foreign affairs, Diplomacy, and that you do not let your private views on Religion dictate your behavior as a Politician.
    Otherwise stop pointing your fingers at Iranians : You do the exact same thing they do...

    September 28, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • garc

      I couldn't have said it better. I can't see why the right-wing evangelicals can't grasp this. The very thing they look down their noses at (a government run on the basis of a religion, i.e., much of the middle east) is the very thing they want here. It's just a different religion.

      September 28, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Jay

      Religion is 'internal' first and lived outwardly daily . Actions are more powerful than rhetoric especially when infused with words of described faith. cf Ron Paul is a Rosicrucian ! He would do away with the Fed but promotes the Globalist agenda regarding a 'single' currency. Go figure

      I wholeheartedly agree with you in that a leader must have more than basic skills, he/she must have a firm non-partisan understanding of Politics, Economy ,Foreign Affairs and particularly Diplomacy . Unfortunately most these days are not driven by service or Statesmanship but rather 'mammon' and prestige.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Maggie

      This is so true!

      October 9, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  12. DA

    Three major religions supposedly worship the same God, yet they are constantly bickering about who's belief is right! Now you tell me, do you really think man understand the context of God? All religions are wrong and right.

    September 28, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Alyssa

      Three? Why stop at three? There are thousands of religions, all with differing views of god and the universe, and each one proclaiming that they're right and that the others are wrong.

      September 30, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  13. tim

    It's nice to see that a former Baptist minister can still reason. I hope he's not the only one.

    September 28, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  14. Bob

    The battle is larger than liberal versus conservative, socialist versus capitalist, democrat versus republican. The struggle we face today is nothing less than the final battle between good and evil. Do not be decieved and get caught up in the myriad of sub-conflicts tearing our world apart today. For the earthquakes, pestilence, famine, wars and rumors of war are but the beginning of sorrows as every living soul is forced to make a decision regarding Jesus Christ. Every knee shall bow and every toungue confess that Jesus is LORD. All that remains to be seen is which side of eternity will you choose to kneel. You can kneel now before Jesus the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world,...or you can kneel before Jesus the Rightous judge just prior to being cast into hell. The choice is yours, but so are the consequences.

    September 27, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Wings

      I'm missing the point. What does this have to do with the article?

      September 29, 2011 at 3:04 am |
    • Alyssa

      It's not "myriad of". It's just "myriad". And the rest of your post is hooey as well.

      September 30, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Aleta413

      Boy, you nuts really want people to pay for not believing in you imaginary friend. Your psychosis is DEEP!

      September 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Amanda

      To Alyssa: Actually, myriad is both a noun and an adjective. So, both 'myriad religions' and 'a myriad of religions' are correct.

      October 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • mike

      Bob, you hit the nail on the head, it's just sad that most here just don't get it. maybe one day before it's to late they will.

      October 10, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  15. CrazyWorld

    America is fed up with our Mooslim-in-Chief and want true godly leadership. Perry is the obvious choice.

    September 27, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Aleta413

      So glad to see ignorance and rasicm is alive and well.

      September 30, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  16. zombie

    Just goes to show what a bunch of B.S. religion really is. How can two candidates be "called" by "god"?

    September 27, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  17. Brant

    Great article. Couldn't agree more

    September 27, 2011 at 8:06 am |

    In the EndTimes our leaders shell be has children. Earthquicks, wars,famine,not of bread or water.but of hearing the Ture WORD OF OUR FATHER. You know like the rapture we,re going 2 fly out of here? God also said if you want 2 believe a lie I will send you strong delusions! Do you have eyes 2 see and ears 2 hear? Romans reads God puts stuper or slumper in this last generation. When was the last time you heard of an earthquick in Virginia. That is the eastcoast, not the westcoast. I know I know it just happen, that,s all no rh yme or reason! Just like God said Isreal will be put back onthe face of the earth! It just happen just because? Wake up ! Open your eyes. Becuase my bothers and sisters it is on the way! And I mean the destoryor is on the way! Tic tic tic it is on the way! Are you ready 2 fly away ? Or be delivered up! JESUE IS MY KING OF KINGS AND MY LORD OF LORDS? JOHN 3*16

    September 26, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • tim

      Just one quick edit of your ramblings would have been nice. (Earthquake, etc, etc, etc.)

      September 28, 2011 at 7:27 am |

    In the EndTimes our leaders shell be has children. Earthquicks, wars,famine,not of bread or water.but of hearing the Ture WORD OF OUR FATHER. You know like the rapture we,re going 2 fly out of here? God also said if you want 2 believe a lie I will send you strong delusions! Do you have eyes 2 see and ears 2 hear? Romans reads God puts stuper or slumper in this last generation. When was the last time you heard of an earthquick in Virginia. That is the eastcoast, not the westcoast. I know I know it just happen, that,s all no rh yme or reason! Just like God said Isreal will be put back onthe face of the earth! It just happen just because? Wake up ! Open your eyes. Becuase my bothers and sisters it is on the way! And I mean the destoryor is on the way! Tic tic tic it is on the way! Are you ready

    September 26, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  20. morris2196

    I am a Christian, but very wary of politicians who wear their faith on their sleeve.

    September 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
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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.