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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. ToddC

    Interesting how no commentary was made of the many Democrats that pile into black churches during election times and speak right from their pulpits encouraging people to vote Democrat. What a one-sided article (One short paragraph about Obama does not become some magic equalizer after frying Republicans throgh the whole article.) The author is free to have that opinion but be honest about how both sides of the political aisle are using religion

    September 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  2. sonofgadfly

    Sorry, but religion is serving exactly the purpose for which it was intended - to take the focus off of real problems and conceal the true nature of scoundrels. It will continue in this function for as long as it is so effective.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Albert

      YES!!!

      September 14, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  3. jona

    Gosh.. no mention of Obama's God reference just the other day.. hmm. I wonder why

    September 14, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • JT

      Gosh, if you'd only read the article you would see Obama mentioned several times.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Wow you're onto yet another example of the terrible left wing medi.....wait oh the article did mention this? The heck with that I'll just pretend it didn't to fit my paranoid worldview.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  4. Van

    Imagine thee's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace
    --John Lennon

    September 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  5. BenButtons

    What a silly premise for an article. I'm a bit surprised to read such an article from an assistant professor, even if he is employed only by JMU. In any event, what happened to letting the candidates spout off on whatever topic they like, and leaving it to the voters to determine whether it is acceptable or not? If voters are concerned that a particular candidate is focused too much on religion (or, improperly focusing on religion) they are expected to voice those concers at the polls. If the majority approve of that candidate's views and offer their support, welcome to the democratic system. Alternatively, if the majority disproves of that candidate's views and withholds their support, welcome to the democratic system.

    It's shocking to read Assistant Professor Kaylor's closing remark, "Confession may be good for the soul, but it is not always good for democracy," when that remark was preceded by an article suggesting that candidate's with or representing those with religious views be silenced.

    Personally, I would prefer that candidates of both parties be prohibited from blatantly lying during the election cycle and offering promises they have no intention of keeping or solutions they have no ability to pay for. That would, at least, send voters to the booths armed to make informed decisions...although, frankly, voters are so beholden to the parties that that wouldn't matter much either.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Albert

      Yes, why isn't lying illegal? Because corruption rules our country and always will.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      @Albert. Or because this country was founded upon the principle of freedom of speech. It's kinda important.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • BenButtons

      ThikForYourself:

      And that's the point, you don't prohibit the content of the candidates' speech as suggested in the article....and then oddly claim that in doing so you are serving "democracy."

      September 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Albert

      Fraud is NOT protected speech! Nor is fear-mongering – like yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre. Swindlers are prosecuted for lying, but if politics is involved, or religion, or both, somehow this gives lying a free pass.
      Corruption rules this country. Lying should be illegal, just as fraud is illegal. Lying should not be protected speech.
      Thousands of law enforcement people lie under oath. They call it "testa-lying". There is no one and nothing to stop them.
      Why should lying be allowed at all in politics? And by so-called moral people who label themselves Christians?
      Why should Christians be allowed to lie? They should all be given lashes in the public square for lying as often as needed.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      BenButtons – how does the article suggest restricting speech? On the contrary, the author specifically states: "I do not wish to see religion excluded from the public square." The article is about politicians using religious rhetoric for personal gains and that we should be able to see through it.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • BenButtons

      Think:

      In my view, and reasonable minds may differ, that's the only logical endpoint. Otherwise, there really is no point in writing the article. What makes religion any different than any other position or rhetoric offered by a candidate? If the article is simply telling us to listen and weigh what they are saying...okay...do we really need an article on that topic? If we do, why limit it to religion?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      "In my view, and reasonable minds may differ, that's the only logical endpoint. Otherwise, there really is no point in writing the article"

      Censorship is the only logical endpoint? Really? Try using more logic. The end point is simple if you actually bothered to read the article: Politicians can use religion for personal gain, not because they are pious or even believe what they are saying. The end point is simply that voters should judge on the merits of a candidates values and position, not rhetoric.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  6. Truthwillsetyoufree

    I keep hearing the word (God) but never the action that goes with it. Shame....

    September 14, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Albert

      Just like every "god" – all secondhand talk, no actual action. Prayers are empty and useless but give an endorphin boost to the delusional people for a moment.
      Real action in the real world does not happen supernaturally.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  7. Frank Jakubiec

    Every one of the politicians that have been complaining about "Sharia Law taking over our country" needs to step back and observe how Bachmann, Perry, Palin, et al are all adherents to Dominionism – whereby the followers proclaim to retake the "seven mountains" of society (including government and media) and rule/run them as dictated by God/the Bible.

    It's a big case of pot calling the kettle black. Be informed! Ignorance is the biggest problem in our country.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  8. rick perrytwit ... slack jawed bible thumper

    If I'm elected president I will see to it that everybody gets more of the baby jesus in their lives. And more nascar, too. More jesus ! More nascar ! YEEEEHHHHHAAAAWWWWW !

    September 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  9. Canadian

    The Simplistic mind is drawn to faith because its to lazy or to stupid to do the work and actually reason, based on fact and evidence. Therefore what better tool to round up the masses of uneducated, lazy, Americans, than fear based religion.

    A renascence is long over due.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      The simplistic mind cannot correctly spell the word renaissance.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  10. Mark B.

    This author seems to think that religion is responsible for the nonsense of today. It is exactly the opposite. It is the absence of religion tha has turned this cukture and country into a bunch of whiny fools who think they have power and knowledge. With God all things are possible. With man all things are silly.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • yeahalright

      It's all in your head. Like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. He doesn't exist. Deep down, you know it.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • jj

      With god in the white house, all things are dark and dangerous. Man invented the 'god in heaven'. And what do they say about absolute power???

      September 14, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Albert

      What absence of religion? You crazy religious people are EVERYWHERE!!!
      Why don't you quit lying and start being honest for once?

      September 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  11. joemeservy

    The question all too importantly becomes is there a right church in the world or a right denomination. I know that there is. I know that our Heavenly Father is a loving God and that he has not left us to be confused. I know that He has traditionally spoken with prophets and I believe that He has continued to do so. By the power of the Holy Ghost I have gained a testimony that The Book of Mormon is a true book of scripture and a testimony of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Albert

      Where's your proof that your church is the "right" one? Nowhere. You can't even get your god to make it rain in Texas, much less tell anyone anything using clear words.
      Thousands of different churches will disagree with you. What makes yours the "right one"? Nevermind you idiot.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  12. Walter

    "[D]isenfranchises those of minority faiths?" Not so. The Muslim won in the last election.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • barabbas2010

      @Walter ........ you sir are a troublemaker and a fool .........

      September 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Allen

      Oh, I know, tell me about it! I mean what with the changing of our National Religion to Islam, the implementation of Sharia Law, the mandatory 5 prayer sessions per day, who can keep up?! Oh, wait...none of those things happened? I stand corrected then. Being that Obama's not Muslim, I would venture to say your comment is ridiculous at best. And besides, even if he were Muslim, who cares? I thought this country was about freedom; specifically the freedom to practice whichever religion you so choose. Moreover, this isn't some sort of "contest" between religions in the first place. Normal, sane individuals don't care what religion their particular elected official practices, because it doesn't matter! It's about their policies, not their personal lives.

      September 14, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  13. wblanco85

    During the apocolypse we get a 3 month break from religious nuts, right? Thank God!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Ezra

      Unfortunately the "religious" politicians will still be hanging around with the rest of us as will most of the evangelicals.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  14. David from North Fork

    Jimmy Carter's faith is sincere, heartfelt but not showy. It is just who he is.

    Today's GOP politicians are so showy in their faith I have to wonder if it is also sincere and heartfelt.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  15. The Truth

    So much for seperation of Church and State....bunch of BS...God is Fraud!!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  16. Van

    Spot on!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  17. louis

    What ever happened to seperation of Church and State? If all the Tea Party nuts want to follow our founding fathers how do they justify this????

    September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  18. Guest

    This is getting quite ridiculous. I hate going on CNN and after every story, whether its politics or about starving kids in Africa, it turns into an attack on liberals, Christians, atheist, and conservatives. First, Christians. Stop forcing your views on other people. I am a Christian and I talk about the Gospel with other people but in no way do I force it upon them. I can't change a man's heart. We can present the Word and that is it. You can be dedicated and caring, but don't force it. If they know the Gospel, your job is done, they have to accept it.
    People who hate Christians sharing the Gospel, just think. We believe in eternal damnation. To have the knowledge that someone is going to Hell, a terrible place, and to do nothing...that's a lot of hate. You don't have to accept it, but don't call us retards, fools, etc. There is much historical evidence for Jesus and the Bible. So much that the Bible (because of when it was written, how many texts there are, etc) is more "credible" than other books we refer to ancient history for. The problem, it's religious.
    Liberals, most of you are not in love with relative truth or at least tolerance. So stop screaming that we are wrong and stupid and listen to yourselves, be tolerant.
    Conservatives, great, you're Christian. Now let's hear your view on policies. You can lead a prayer, speak at Liberty, etc, but Jesus doesn't solve the debt. Maybe leading a Christian life, praying for guidance, etc, will help, but you have to do something.
    And everybody, stop fighting over everything. It's terrible when I'm reading about horrific situations in Somalia, where I know atheist and theist are helping in refugee camps and donating food and money, yet the comments are just attacks on each other. Get over it, stop fighting, be TOLERANT.

    God bless you all.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • demetri

      Can someone be loving, caring, kind, sympathetic and virtrueous and not be a christain?

      September 14, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Albert

      If you want to be tolerant, quit hating those of us who call you an idiot, idiot.
      You feel a need to spread your lies, fine. That's no surprise to anybody. That's not news.
      But spreading your lies (and they can be proven to be lies) is intolerant of you regardless of how you feel.
      That's why we all gather together here – to spread our intolerance of one another's shortcomings and hopefully make people think about how wrong they are. You are doing it in your post. We do it back.
      You are being intolerant of intolerance, yet engage in intolerance yourself.
      Hypocrisy, the rock-solid touchstone of religious believers.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • jj

      Hey, this is an online debate. There is no logic or solid reasoning allowed! Take your college education elsewhere, where it can be understood! ;>

      September 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  19. sortakinda

    Politicians are strategists. They think that Kissing babies garners support, so they do it. Wrapping themselves in the flag is another tactic. Manipulating the beliefs of the electorate is just one more tool of the insincere.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  20. thes33k3r

    I look forward to the day when the sun rises on the USA and finds it to be a place where religious nuts and power-mongerers are marginalized and ignored to the point of irrelavance. That day is approaching but it is still years or decades away.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Mark B.

      Why? So the socialist secular nuts who believe in nothing can satn polarized by differing opinions and get absolutely nothing worth doing done? Your world will be of your own devise and void of any passion, priniciple or purpose. I pity you.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • David GA Vet

      Amen!

      September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Craig from Pa.

      Amen to that!!

      September 14, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • yeahalright

      I figure this is the last century in which saying you believe in an invisible man in the sky doesn't get you laughed out of the room. These are the death throes of that mentality.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • America

      People without Faith have no reason to be honest and Americans do not have Faith in them.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      Oh, Mark. Do you honestly think Jesus would look at America and think it was a good and righteous thing?

      Personally, I am agnostic, but I don't need my government's passion, principle or purpose to come from a dusty old book that talks about how to treat your slaves. I want my government's passion, principle and purpose to come from serving the best interests the people.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • asdf

      classic response by Mark here: Atheist equals socialist equals nihilist. Disregard the fact that he's trying to hide a copy of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead in his bible, the truth that they were written by an avowed atheist means nothing. Disregard the fact that everything Jesus did and said about economies and social justice runs completely contrary to the GOP point of view. He might as well have said "I'll keep my eyes shut with my fingers in my ears, thankyouverymuch!"

      September 14, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Aesop

      Amen!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:27 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.