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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. 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.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  2. Feast of Beast

    The second you mention God you lose my vote.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Big George in Big D

      moron

      September 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • GodPot

      I guess Big George wanted to use the largest word he knew to introduce himself. Just remember Big George, you need to start a sentence with something like "I am a..." then add the predicate, and then finish it with a period.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • God (the REAL one)

      GodPot, no, "wonder" is Big George's largest word.

      "Moron" is tied with "color" for second place.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  3. David Johnson

    @Edwin

    Prayer is a last ditch effort to control out of control situations. It isn't need driven. It is driven by desperation.

    You god is very unlikely to exist.

    Cheers!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. me

    The one that got me was posted here about 2 years ago. Right out of a Southern baptist South Carolina lady's mouth.
    "We don't have to pay no attention to politics here, our pastor done goes and tells us who to vote for."

    SAY WHAT?

    So much for separation of church and state.

    I have a hard time dealing with any candidate that holds prayer rallies, is "chosen" by God to run, and panders to this type for votes.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Big George in Big D

      gee and I wonder what color she was!

      September 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • You

      Wow, that is pretty scary . Just goes to show you how much influence religious leaders can have over stupid people.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • God (the REAL one)

      It's a cinch she wasn't the *right* color, eh Big D?

      September 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  5. Barnacle Bill

    "Dear god, we see fear in the marketplace, vile gays getting married, and lord, we are afraid, so very, very afraid."

    September 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  6. God

    I made a big mistake creating man.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Colin

      Indeed. You should have stopped at ho.mo er.ectus, or even australopithecus.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • God (the REAL one)

      Okay, buddy, just who do you think you are?

      Want to see a miracle?

      I just trashed your FICO score, beeeeeatch.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Man

      I made an even bigger mistake creating God...

      September 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Man (the REAL one)

      Okay, pal, let's get something straight here...

      September 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  7. I Don't Get It

    If the same "God" "talks" to all y'alls, why would a candidate have to even mention it? Wouldn't you all be getting telepathed the message already?

    September 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Albert

      You hit the nail on the head with that one!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  8. ddap

    I think waaaaaay back in what? 4th grade history, back in the late 70s, I was taught about how 1 of the founding principle of this country was freedom of religion and the separation between Church and State.

    Essentially – worship as you wish, but government will not be run by religion.

    Time for a change, and going back 235 years on this topic is probably a wise choice.

    For those of you that can't figure how I got 235 – 2011 minus 1776 (year we won independence) = 235 years.

    Thank you.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  9. Dan

    Wow, this god is calling out to different candidates at the same time.... he must be a crazy dude! bah... stop this religious nonsense for once!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  10. Anomic Office Drone

    The people may worship as they please, but the government should only worship the people.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  11. Fielding Mellish

    For God's sake let's put in atheist in office next time!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Axel

      What do you mean next time? We have an atheist in the WH now!

      September 14, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  12. Robert Yarush

    I do not buy into politics and religion what so ever. Not only does it serve for any fix to America's issues... it most of the time sets the platform to expose the politician as hypocritical. The dynamics of American politics has gotten way out of hand.... the politician feels the need to be all ... to all. This is rediculous... and impossible to achieve. If politicians would just limit themselves to going to do the peoples wishes... instead of getting closer to godliness.... we be a much better nation.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  13. Balls McGhee

    Jesus is not for the death penalty, nor for tax cuts for the wealthiest. caring for the poor means healthccare for thse who cant afford it and government aid if necessary. the gop tries to tell us the Jesus is for tough love – simply not true. unconditional love and help the poor without any return.

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

      Hey Balls – about 100 billion people have ever lived. How many is your sky-god roasting at the moment? A billion, a few hundred million?

      Hitler made it to 6 million. I guess you all loving god beat him by a few hundred million. Plus, there is no end to the torment in your loving god's eyes, right. It goes on for all eternity.

      Your "loving god" is the mother of all torturers. A real cosmic son-of-a-b1tch, by your own reasoning.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • American for destruction

      I think america should get.what america deserves. POVERTY, FAMINE, ECONOMIC COLLASPE, AND ALL NODES OF MODERN CIVILITY DESTROYED.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Colin

      American for destructi n- it's called "Detroit".

      September 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @American for destruction

      " I think america should get.what america deserves. POVERTY, FAMINE, ECONOMIC COLLASPE, AND ALL NODES OF MODERN CIVILITY DESTROYED. "

      What in the f-uck are you talking about...?

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Brian

      Agreed, but as we all know it's not quite that simple. The article is without question exactly correct. But to say the GOP is for tough love and Jesus wasn't is an oversimplification / way too many social variables to say that: Doing the right thing, something both parties platforms claim, does indeed include taking care of the truly needy in a loving, unconditional way. The disabled, the elderly and kids should come first for all the rest of us, clearly. What is not so clear at all is, what do we do on an individual basis to give hands up vs. enabling hand outs? There are tens of millions of US citizens who do indeed think the government is responsible for their life and to prevent their death. Obviously, they have been deceived, their world view / metaphysical understanding and reliance on our "social contract" is unsustainable, inhuman, demoralizing, not accurate, dangerous, pathetic and the opposite of having a satisfying, peaceful, fun life! There are so may ways to succeed in relationships, in productive, satisfying life in this country. To choose to be victim is so sad. To be so discouraged suggests immense deception- self deception and indeed by elitists from both sides of the isle.
      I am still a Dem, but I agree with whomever I think is correct about doing the right thing. GOP candidates showed they are all quality, cognitively agile folks in the last debate. Dismiss them at your peril. They all are smart and hardworking. Some are not sane enough to lead, using religion as a trump card will not help them win. But integrity will, and Christ-like living is the best way I know to do that / not the only way, but the most effective.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Casca Longinus

      If anyone wants to be "Christ-like" just come on over and I'll nail you up on a cross and then kill you with a spear.
      You'll have to sign a big stack of docu.ments releasing me from any liability, and get the local cops to approve, but I can guarantee a very "Christ-like" experience for all of you!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Albert

      Brian said, "GOP candidates showed they are all quality, cognitively agile folks in the last debate. Dismiss them at your peril. They all are smart and hardworking."
      LOL
      LOL
      LOL
      And if we dismiss them, how can there be peril? To vote them into office would be perilous indeed for our country!
      LOL

      September 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Mark B.

      As individuals NOT government and NOT by force.
      .

      September 14, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  14. Jose San Antonio

    Politicians need to stay away from talking religion all together. They need to appear to everyone alike, christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Atheist, etc. And not just to the conservative right.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  15. Peace2All

    FROM THE ARTICLE:

    " 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). "

    --------------------------------------------------

    I really liked what this guy had to say, and think he is pretty much 'spot-on' in his position. (IMHO).

    Regards,

    Peace...

    September 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Albert

      You are correct, Peace2All. This is a good article. The whackos hate our country after being told to hate it from the pulpit.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  16. Say something

    Um, so? is this an article worth the 1s and 0s to put it on the web?
    So, are you advocating that people should hide their faith and be equally disingenuous. (Exhibit "bad faith"). Should they not show up where people have paid money or offered contributions simply because it might have religious overtones? Do we require equal representation? Should we have a set number of atheists, buhdists and social scientists on the tickets to make them 'even'? What's your point? What's your recommendation?

    September 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      oviously you missed the point. we all seemed to get it, but you.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • sbh

      Ummm...you tell us. You took the time to read it! Must have gotten and maintained your attention.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Wonder5

      Wow ...The article went over your head....amazing. There is always one in the class that never gets it.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Zenichi-Maro

      You are completely missing the point! No one is saying that you can't have your faith, and no one is saying that there should be quotas. What he's suggesting is that candidates have politicized religion–which is bad–in order to avoid talking about real political solutions to our problems–which is worse.

      As a Buddhist (and please learn how to spell that word), I see this from a very different POV, and, frankly, the talking points and dog whistle language of the current crop of GOP candidates scares the living crap out of me. I do NOT want a dominionist in the White House!

      The author's biggest point, and one that I think should be paid attention to, is that we have a DE FACTO RELIGIOUS TEST FOR OFFICE when every clown with an American flag lapel pin running for office tries to out-God the other God-talkers. It's counter to the idea of a secular democracy where "All men (and women) are created equal."

      Cheers,
      ZNM

      September 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Say something

      I believe from reading the article, it wasn't so much about you all hiding your faith, but what exact 'relevance' if any... the faith and bible verse spouting of the GOP (and our current President), what exact measurable 'value' does doing the Bible spouting have...?

      The author's opinion, again is that we are 'not' voting for an "Evangelist and Chief"... we are voting for someone who has the best background, skills, ideas, etc... to bring about the critical changes that 'are' relevant in our country right now.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • FROS

      Although the author very clearly made his point, it seems to have completely gone over your head. Instead of asking stupid questions, why don't you read the article again and try to pay attention next time?

      September 14, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • EchoSider

      I think clearly you did not take the time to read it. Perhaps reading the words after the headline would be helpful for better comprehension.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  17. Desert lady

    Right on, JV!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  18. Denker

    Scary! They should run for president in the Vatican if they want to live in a theocracy so badly .

    September 14, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  19. anyaheck

    In all honesty, part of our problem is that we are trying to take God out of everything. Our country was founded on christian faith and principles- let's not cop out.

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

      You might want to pick up a history book. This country was definitely not founded on Christian principles (and formally stated so in the Treaty of Tripoli). Many of our founding fathers were not Christians but deists and some were atheist.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      we werent founded on any christian values. the people just happened to be Christians who settled here. they wanted to get away from governments run by religion. stop making up the history of our nation with your religious lies.

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

      wrong. wrong. wrong.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      You mean "christian faith and principles" like slavery and stealing land from the original inhabitants, or do you simply mean greed?

      September 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • JT

      Not that tired old lie again! You might actually try and educate yourself instead of getting all your information from your pastor. People, like you, who continue to spew this ignorance or agenda shouldn't even be allowed to vote.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Kat

      Actually, anyaheck, I don't know what you were taught in American History, but I believe our country was founded on religious freedom. Even though the people who founded our country were Christians, they specifically wanted a separation of Church and State, which is why they left England in the first place... because their government put too much emphasis on religion (remember how there's a Church of England?)

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

      I don't know what country you live in, so I will give you the benefit of the doubt. However, if you live in the USA, you should try picking up a history book one of these days. You might learn something about the country you live in and not sound so idiotic.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  20. Terminatus

    I'm a Christian, and a Republican, and I would never vote for a candidate who gets on the stump and talks God. How gullible, or stupid does one have to be to believe a POLITICIAN talking about faith? Do yourself a favor Perry and stick to the friggin' issues.

    bumpersticker: Perry is Scary! Anyone Else 2012

    September 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Terminatus

      That is really good to hear !

      Unfortunately, I think that you are in the 'minority' as far as the faithful go in terms of how they vote.

      May there be more people that 'think' about things critically...and... still have their personal 'faith.'

      Regards,

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Henster

      We can tell your a christian by your language. If you don't what Friggin means you should terminate yourself.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Henster

      HA HA We can tell your a christian by your language. If you don't what Friggin means you should terminate yourself.

      September 14, 2011 at 1:42 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.