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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. David

    Ron Paul did not name his son after Ayn Rand:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/us/politics/06paul.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

    Does anyone at CNN ever do any fact checking?

    September 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  2. Barking Alien

    There is a good reason for seperation of church and state. Look around the world at all of the theocracies and you can see why religion should be kept out of politics. The far right wing wants to turn our country into a theocracy. If you look over the last 30 yrs religion has poisoned politics and helped create the partisan divide.

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

      No matter how hard the left tries to convince folks otherwise, separation of church and state was never intended to apply to candidates' personal views on religion (or, to prohibit those views from having some influence on their policies).

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

      No matter how the religious sheeple will try to tell you otherwise, there's no evidence for a personal god, and there are mountains of evidence that the bible is a load of evil, nonsense and contradiction.

      Get over your sky fairy stories and start fixing your own problems.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Saboth

      @Ben
      Candidates are allowed to have their own beliefs, and they can say whatever they like. The problem arises when they foist those beliefs upon the rest of us using the power of office. Can you tell me a reason why Roe vs. Wade should be overturned if not factoring in The Bible? How about why gays shouldn't marry if you take religion completely out of the equation? And yes, separation of church and state was created exactly to prevent our leaders from forcing their opinions and religions down our throats.

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

      Sid:

      Interesting response, but I'm not trying to convince you of anything. You're certainly welcome to your views, whether I agree with them or not.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • BenButtons

      Saboth:

      First, thanks for the rational response, those are often hard to come by in here. In response to your questions, I don't know that in the instances you cite, that simple morality would give you a different result (hang tight, I know this comment doesn't apply to each example). For example, I am a Christian, but I don't necessarily buy the religious arguments behind Roe v. Wade. However, as a father, I have somewhat of a moral issue with abortions after a certain term. I'd bring that with me to office, but it's not a religious decisions per se. Make sense? As a politician, you would be subject to my views (not based on religion) in those instances b/c you elected me. We (unfortunately) trust our politicians to act in accordance with their own sense of morality, which is not too far from religion.

      As for gay marriage, again, I am a Christian. However, I believe that if folks are born that way, then God intended for them to be born that way and they should be permitted to have the same rights as everyone else. If I were elected, that would be my position which is also, in my view, morally correct.

      Your final statement is correct: separation of church and state was created to prevent leaders from forcing relgions (not opinions, as stated in your statement) down our collective throat. That is very different from saying that our leaders and our leaders decisions should be free from religion. That's just as impossible as saying that our leaders and their decisions should be free from their personal views on morality.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  3. romw2894

    The very last thing we need in our political leadership is a belief they are being directed by God to do this or that. We need to keep politics and religion very separated. One only need to look toward the Middle East to see what type of havoc not following this logic can cause.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  4. NFL

    WHO'S READY FOR SOME FOOTBALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL

    September 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  5. Dr.K.

    Amen!

    September 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  6. Sid

    Ti-tle is not general enough. "Don’t be fooled by candidates’ God talk" should read "Don’t be fooled by talk about any god." There's no god, so show some courage and stop expecting a sky fairy to solve your problems for you. Never has, never will.Lots of godfrauder preachers will be happy to take your money though.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  7. dk

    Amen brother!! Preach!!!! God...protect me from your followers, especially another phony cowboy from Texas.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  8. DC

    I dare CNN to publish an article telling some Muslim politician to keep their faith to themselves, like they do with Christianity. The double standards are getting thick.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Chris

      He wouldn't mention that because we, as Americans in a predominantly Christian society, aren't inundated with Muslim rhetoric. Besides, you're dense if you can't see that this author would apply the same rationale to overly religious Muslim election messages. Way to be overly sensitive.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Leif

      @DC. You'll have to find a Muslim politician first. There are a few, but I haven't seen any of them being very public about their faith. And none of them is running for president.

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

      I don't care what religion any of them are, given that the majority of the founding four fathers were either Deists or Atheists ( neither are Christian obviously). Politics is about ethics not morals. I know many people that have strong ethics but have 'soft' morals. These people run departments and even businesses well and by the book. That is what I want in a Politician. I don't care if he never slept with his wife or that he goes to church every Sunday. I don't care because I am not Christian and even when I was a Dedicated Roman Catholic for 20 years, I didn't care. Religion has no place in politics and needs to be removed as it clouds the real issues at hand.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Dr.K.

      Are there Muslim politicians in the US Presidential race? Are they courting that enormous evangelical Muslim vote in American politics? I'm sorry, am I missing something?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Sean Russell

      Maybe when a muslim politician campaigns on his religion like these guys are.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Dave

      Hey, idiot, I think they just did...or don't you read?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • tr

      What Muslim, republican, god-vomiting candidates are there to write about?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Proof!!

      Show me a Muslim politician in America that has quoted quran scripture to win over voters and I will show you someone who was persecuted and lost their election. Pretty sure there isn't much of a story for CNN to report on here other than the contrast between our acceptance of Christianity and nothing else. For example, do you see Romney or Huntsman out there quoting the teachings of Joseph Smith???

      September 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @DC

      As the posters above me have already stated. Your posting was not very well though-through, was it...?

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @DC

      ** -Thought-through

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  9. Dr. Mephisto

    These politicians who pander to the religious right are so pathetically transparent, and they know it. Either Bachmann or Perry will probably end up being our next president. A 6 yr old has higher developed critical thinking skills than either of these 2 yet the religiously deluded majority of this country will see to it one of them is elected to lead 300 million people. Scary stuff folks!

    September 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Dr.K.

      Unfortunately, they are transparent to everyone but the fundamentalists they are courting. To the evangelicals they are righteous.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • smukers

      Absolutely !

      September 14, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  10. CopontheBeat

    I just got off the phone with Jesus. He said he loves intelligent people who continue to advance the knowledge of the human race. He is not happy with the racists, with those who continue to pillage the earth, with those ignorant people spouting blather in his name. He says he's going to melt all the glaciers, and drown these blasphemers if they don't start start treating each other with respect, and being better stewards of the planet he created.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • concerned

      Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess - At somepoint between now and your end, God will become real to you. So sorry you don't know him.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Sid

      Funny, he never answers anyone else's calls.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Sid

      concerned, how come your "god" needs us to bow? Vain and conceited much?

      Hey, look up Pascal's Wager. You might learn something.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Jessica, NJ

      Instead of melting a glacier maybe we could get God to cause a huge glacier right down the middle of the country where so many of these teabaggers live. Why drown the liberals on the coasts?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  11. PATRICIA

    Every time one of my daughters brought home a boy I didn't like I told her to go find herself
    a nice Jewish boy.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  12. scieng

    Conservatives and liberals have the same languages, just different gods. They use the words that identify themselves, one may be Jesus, the other may be "scientists". One may be freedom, the other may be regulation. One may be "right to life", the other may be "right to chose". On and on it goes.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Leafonthewind

      Generalize much? Not all Christians are conservatives, and not all liberals are atheist.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Chris

      Whats ur point even? There is a huge difference between (one example) right to choose and right to life. One, I'm banning it for everybody based on how I personally feel about it. Other, I'm allowing it so those that wish to choose that route can, those that don't won't. And all judgement will come from their maker.

      You want to pinpoint the difference: Christians want to control others actions (opposite of how their god handles things interestingly enough), Liberals simply want you to be able to make your own choice.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Seer Clearly

      There's one difference between the two "Gods." With Science, you can go into the lab and prove what "god" says about the universe is true. With Christianity (or religion in general) you can't prove anything that God says about the universe is true, and not only that if you go around pretending that what God said was true, the universe stubbornly refuses to confirm it by acting the way you expect, so you end up hating your God for abandoning you.

      Of course, if Christianity's god weren't made up by power-hungry politicians who cobbled together a bible while trying to control empires, Christians might have a better idea of what God is that wouldn't conflict so badly with what they observe in their daily lives.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  13. LA310

    I'm christian and I love God and believe he loves me too. I'm also Catholic. I don't need or want a Evangelical Protestant dictating faith and policy to me. Therefore separation of church and state is a beautiful thing.

    with that being said, evey non white, female, gay, and/or minority should fear the religious right. And since I just mentioned at least 75% of americans, lets try to let the GOTP continue on to Crazyville.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @LA310

      I'm curious, as you are a 'Catholic.'

      Would you be o.k. if a 'Catholic' was in the White House dictating faith and policy to you...?

      Regards,

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Sid

      You're Catholic and you admit it? Now that's funny.

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

      Agree with your comments. I am Christian but the separation of church and state is clear and needs to stay that way. Honestly, if the GOP thinks that talking religion is going to get them more votes than staying away from religion talk then that just shows how out of touch they are with the people. Didn't they get the memo? you never talk religion AND politics....

      September 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Sara

      Unfortunately, studies suggest otherwise. The GOP contenders would 'not' be making their Bible spouting such a big deal if they weren't sure that... that would help them appeal to a certain conservative core base of the Republican Party.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Jessica, NJ

      @Sara, also the sad thing is that many more "religious types" vote compared to the non-religious types or would that be the non-crazy-religious types....

      September 14, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  14. PRISM 1234

    Republican God is Mammon. They are blind, leading the blind.... but the most troublesome thing here is that the ones led by them are the ones who are supposed to be Christians. I believe it only reflects the condition of much of Christianity today in this country!

    Fahrenheit 451, you're right in what you said in your post!

    September 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Sean

      Exactly!

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

      "They are blind, leading the blind..." -true of religious sheeple generally.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @Sid
      False!.....You don't KNOPW them all!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @Sid
      False!...you don't KNOW them all!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  15. Ezra

    god told me not to vote for anyone who says that he speaks to them. by the way god has a funny accent – it's kinda cute really.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  16. Chris

    Religion in politics! Too bad those people that don't subscribe to religion are not fairly represented in government...check out this brief blog post if you're interested in learning more.

    http://politicalreligion.tumblr.com/

    September 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  17. gwilliams

    Precisely...excellent article. Need I say more?

    September 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  18. Ray

    Mr. Kaylor: Your quote from Jesus "..live by the sword will die by the sword" is accurate but misapplied. Jesus wasn't saying you will die by whatever means you live. He was specifically talking about violence. If you use violence, you will suffer violence.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Ray

      However, I do agree with most of your observations and am 100% with you in your last several paragraphs (except I'm not a former Baptist pastor.)

      September 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • A Theist

      I think it was an attempt at a pun rather than a direct carry-over from what he believes it means. Though I appreciate the clarification for those who didn't get it!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  19. Joe

    People who think God talks to them directly are crazy. People who tell others that God speaks to them directly are manipulative narcissists. Or politicians.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  20. kra

    Actions speak louder than words. It appears that the GOP candidates don't let their faith interfere with their political/business practices. What have they done for the "widows, orphans and aliens in their land."

    September 14, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Ken

      Very good point! God is more interested in how you live your testimony than how you brag about it.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Sid

      There's no evidence that any god gives a cr-ap about you personally.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • A Theist

      @Sid

      The Bible, free will, the concept of love... I can go on.

      You may respond by saying, "That's not evidence," and then proceed to give me the underpinnings as to why you believe the Bible to be false, or how free will and the concept of love work on a neurological level. Let me spare you the time and jump right to the point: the first "counter-evidence" is a matter of contention–we can debate that all day–the latter two aren't even counter-evidence, they are explanations for how things work. It's like saying "I believe in mechanics because I've seen a car before." Then you say, "There's no evidence of mechanics because cars move due to their engines, which are commonly fueled by gasoline...." It's apples and oranges. I'm talking about the "why" and you're talking about the "how." It's the fact that we even ask "why" that also gives me pause, and believe that a God wants us to ask "why?".

      September 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Sid

      "A Theist", keep on trying. So far, nothing you have presented is valid evidence. Your post, however, is a fine example of circular reasoning. You are spewing bull ex-cre-ment by the cr-apload. The bible says because the bible says...

      Epic fail on the car analogy attempt too. Lots of Christians try that one. So how come your perfect designer made so many design errors? What a fscking farce your religion is.

      The bible is a load of contradictory cr-ap. Get over it and get on with your life already.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • A Theist

      Sid, apparently you suffer from short-term memory loss. Your first statement was referring to the lack of evidence that "god gives a cr-ap about you personally." I am indicating venues by which one could easily perceive that, if a God existed, there is evidence that such a God cares about us personally.

      Your follow up reply pertains to the existence of God istself–a logical step-back, if you will. Do you want to discuss existence or whether or not, if a God exists, that this God "gives a cr-ap about us personally"? Try to keep up and stay on topic, I know it can be hard for you.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Sure

      "Do you want to discuss existence or whether or not, if a God exists"

      Sure, lets hear your answer without using the bible.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • A Theist

      @Sure, my answer would take pages on pages to explain thoroughly enough, but I'll condense it to the essentials.

      Concerning the nature of God, if we accept that He or It or She or They exist, in all likelihood it is an existence that can be exo-universal. That is, the Deity is not bound by the limitations of the Universe. There are some who believe that there is such a deity that exists within the confines of the universe, and to them I would say that I cannot believe such a statement, since this means that said Deity or Deities are comprised of dimensions and qualities defined by the universe (they are in some way measurable or evidential by means of physical properties).

      Therefore, an exo-universal God would have to be, by definition, neither provable nor disprovable–for the idea of proofs and logic are also bound by the confines of the universe. It stands to reason that if such there is a possibility of a God that extends beyond the universe, He/It/She/They either care nothing for the universe, and are therefore essentially nonexistent. Alternatively, a Deity may have–even if it is only the slightest concern or interaction–an interaction with the Universe it potentially created. Because such a being exists beyond the universe, the only way by which an interaction would occur would be if the Being stepped into the physical and had an active "cause-effect" impact on the Universe. Some, including myself, believe that the first "cause" or spark of cause-effect actions occured as an action of Will. That is, some being brought the universe out from nothing, and because of this, the Universe exists.

      If there is any other moment where I believe a Deity would have had a direct influence on the Universe, it is the matter of the creation of life. I do not believe that such a Deity had to "create life out of nothing," but I believe that the probability of life forming without some influence is extremely low. It could have been as simple as constructing DNA or the first unicellular organisms, but no matter the degree, I believe that an Intelligent Being had to play a role. Because I do not believe that aliens exist (in itself a very low possibility), I posit that a Divine Being was responsible for the creation of life.

      And finally, for Philosophical reasons. Of all the beings on the planet, it is undeniable that the mind of man is significantly more complex than that of other species. A particularly interesting phenomenon of the human psyche is the tendency to ask "why." Why are we here? Why do things happen as they do? The biggest, of course, being, what is our purpose? Now I'm not saying that science can't help shed light on these types of inquiries, unique to the human mind. However, I find it intriguing that, in the evolutionary process, the brain found a naturally beneficial reason to include in man a question of purpose, or even a sense of purpose for that matter. All the other animals seem to carry on quite well without ever wondering why they exist in the first place.

      Of course, a disputer can always provide an answer that does not need God–well, at least everything but the formation of the Universe. They can say, life was just a chance–even you said it was a low possibility, well I accept that that possibility happened–we have no purpose, etc. To that I say, simply because an answer is possible, it does not make it necessarily true. Many minds, far more brilliant than mine or likely any other poster on this site have, through observation of the universe, concluded that a Deity exists.

      There are many reasons beyond these why I believe that a Deity exists, but maybe these are enough to get the discussion going.

      September 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • A Theist

      I guess Sure and Sid didn't want to play after all...

      September 14, 2011 at 5:21 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.