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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. rick perrytwit ... slack jawed bible thumper

    If I am elected president, I will personally see to it that everyone gets more baby jesus in their lives, whether they want it or not !

    September 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  2. julie

    And all of these loving Christians, with Jesus as their personal savior, are the same devout souls who cheered at the notion of Mr. Perry executing more prisoners than any other governor, and all without losing a wink of sleep. Exactly where in the New Testament does Jesus instruct his followers to execute thy Trespassers?

    September 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Well it's hard to forgive people for murdering your loved ones, perhaps you wouldn't know. Many try to forgive, but it's human nature to abhor the murderers of the world.

      Maybe the only ones who are fake are the ones pretending they dont...

      September 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Saboth

      The same place where it says ship all the Mexicans back home, put the gays on a slow boat to China, and if someone is sick in our society, we should let them die because they didn't specifically buy the catastrophic cancer claim rider on their health insurance (or their insurance costs $12,000 a year because their employer only wants to pay 20%).

      September 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Ohhh poooor victims... poor you. Get a job loser, and get responsible.

      Immigration laws are in all countries, we're one of the easiest to get in.
      Gays are welcomed in America compared to most other countries. Go be gay in Iran and see what happens.
      If you don't wanna take care of yourself and gamble that you'll be healthy all your life, YOU pay for it, not me.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Julie

      CNN....really? what do you mean "get a job loser?" How does that have anything to do with the poster's remarks? I'm sorry for your loss if someone you know was murdered, but if one calls oneself a Christian, then by definition you follow Christ's teachings. Frying someone in the electric chair, and particularly if that person happens to be innocent, just isn't in the New Testament. Sorry. So either be act like a Christian or pick a different religion, one you believe in.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      It means anyone who posts about how everyone else should pay for their shortcomings obviously never got or held a job.

      and if they did... they'd appreciate the government not taking their money for what some snot nosed kid who has no job thinks they should pay for out of their rightfully earned income.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Albert

      Sounds like RightTurnClyde is back....

      September 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Yes albert, when a lack of common sense is overwritten by the denial that is proven to have taken over, you turn to the ole fist.

      Now THAT is smart, AND effective!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  3. R, WA

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I won't vote for a candidate that makes religion a key part of their campaign. I see it as both grossly inappropriate and an indicator that they may not have the ability to address concrete issues if they are elected.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • TheWiz

      So, that would have left out George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, not to mention THE REV. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tommy Douglas, to name just a few. All of these used the language of spirituality and religion, if they were not outright motivated by religious beliefs, and they tackled some of the most concrete and crucial "real world" issues of the day. You're demonstrating nothing but anti-religious bigotry by such comments. There are a lot of people on the "left" of the political spectrum, who have a great handle on the problems facing our world, who are also religious to greater or lesser degree. Such stuff as you have posted is terribly unhelpful.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • R, WA

      @TheWiz: If I were around for historic campaigns, and heard nothing but religion without plans and supporting data, then yes, I would not have voted for them.

      The personal lives or beliefs of the candidates are not my concern, it's their right to believe whatever they want and live how they choose. I object here to the use of religion as a plea (or based on some segments of the belief spectrum, a demand) for common ground and common cause with voters, particularly as used in the place of rational plans based on data and projections that could further the interests of voters. If they had the ideas and data necessary to succeed, they wouldn't need religion as a blunt instrument. I stand by my statement, I will not vote for a candidate standing mostly on religion.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  4. Jim in Washington

    If any one wants to think there is an old man in Heaven who makes universal rules about good and bad behavior and then doesn't so squat to make people follow them, let them. But I know ding bats when I see (or hear) them and I don't want another one for president.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  5. gregg

    American politicians use god like a tool. It is sad. In the USA it is all about perception, not substance.

    very superficial people.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • RFBJR

      Gregg, do you think the men that wrote this statement, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.", were superficial?

      @Jim in Washington – Do you think these men were dingbats?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      Jefferson wrote those words, probably to pacify the theists. Jefferson was possibly a deist, and leaned pretty heavily toward non-belief.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • yeahalright

      RFBJR...do you think he was actually referring to politicians of 200 years ago or the ones today?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  6. saopaco

    "Religious devotion and piety does not inherently equal governing competence"
    A-friggin-men!

    September 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  7. Dol

    People need to accept the fact that Christians are not going away. The fact of the matter is that if this country would put more faith in God and let Him guide them, we wouldn't be in the sorry state that we're in. It's kind of a "Duh!" thing.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Saboth

      You're right. If politicians sat around praying more and did even *less* work, we'd get some real results around here.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      Right, that's exactly what we need. To sit around and pray that things get better instead of actually doing something about it. Sorry, but rain dances – in whatever form – don't work.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • saopaco

      Please keep your God in your own yard.
      You do realize that not everyone believes as you do, right? The country subscribing to your religious beliefs en masse is unlikely to happen, thus we need a more practical solution to our societal issues.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Dol

      " People need to accept the fact that Christians are not going away. The fact of the matter is that if this country would put more faith in God and let Him guide them, we wouldn't be in the sorry state that we're in. It's kind of a( "Duh!") thing. "

      It's this kind of talk that often gives me great pause when it comes to 'some' of the 'faithful.'

      Peace...

      September 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • TheWiz

      So, what that means is that all Christians should call on Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and their ilk to repent and return to the Lord. They should be 100% backing universal medical care. They should be lobbying for better education for young people, for equal opportunities for those who have been pushed to the margins. They should be welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, because by welcoming strangers, some have entertained angels unawares. Yes, let the Gospel really and truly speak and guide society, and the TEA Party, the GOP, the right wing of American political life, will completely and utterly disappear. Bachmann and her cronies on the religious right are no better than the pharisees that the Gospel derides as hypocrites.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Julie

      Yeah, that worked out so well for the Texans who prayed for rain.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  8. cnnsucks

    I'm just glad to see the Dems out of office.

    We gave em a shot, as usual they blew it. Why? Cause they're vain, self absorbed, and in denial of virtually everything that screams common sense.

    and they won't get another chance till this country is back on track, which might be a very very long time...

    September 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      Because the Republicans did such a fantastic job in the last election? The whole vote-out-whatever-party-is-in-office position is an extremely dangerous one because it blindly as.sumes that the alternative is not worse.

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

      Typical response... Everything is Bush's fault, Obama bears no blame, we didn't give Obama enough of our money or time to make a difference, Im so smart you're not, vomit as nauseum the same Dem talking points that are making the majority of Americans despise the fingerpointing left.

      Make your beds, lie in them.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • saopaco

      Cnnsucks, so if you substtute the word Republican in for Dem in your statement, would this still be meaningful?

      "We gave em a shot, as usual they blew it. Why? Cause they're vain, self absorbed, and in denial of virtually everything that screams common sense."

      I think we have broader issues than mere partisanship can fix.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      no, the democrats were clear on making this a partisan problem in the last 4 years of President Bush's term, and they won't get off so easy now that their Hope and Change turned into Sh1t and Squalor.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • saopaco

      @cnnsucks, it is a typical response that "It is Bush's fault". That is probably due to the fact that he was a collosal f@#k-up as a president.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • saopaco

      Since, you know, partisanship will solve everything =)

      September 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Repeating a dead horse talking point soapaco? I'm sure that'll get you more votes!

      Honestly, I DO want you to keep it up. Keep bashing Bush, keep talking about all the same crap yo guys have been, makes it sooo much easier if you nail your own coffins, we really don't even have the inkling to anymore.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • saopaco

      Bush being a moron is not a talking point, cnnsucks. Bush IS a moron.
      Whatever you need to tell yourself, so that you can feel better about not liking the current president is fine...but just take a look at Bush's terms in office and see if you feel all warm inside.

      You don't like Obama? Good for you. I hated Bush and had to put up with 8 years of his enlightened reign.

      Maybe we will both get a break and get Ron Paul next time.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Ya actually I'd take Ron Paul. I knew we could meet in the middle!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  9. blf83

    If you as a politician have to go to Liberty University to speak your "faith", you have already sold your soul to the religious devils of the right-wing – which is NEITHER Christian NOR Christ-like.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • TheWiz

      Hear, hear!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      ya, we should all join the atheist fingerpointing cannibalistic left.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      Cannibalistic? Atheists, by definition, aren't Catholic.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • TheWiz

      @cnnsucks – I think you've missed the point. Typical for a right wing "fundamentalist" though.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      That'll go far over the heads of most liberals who read it. However I did find it somewhat humorous!.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • yeahalright

      cnnsucks is one of those people, of whom there are way too many, who only see things in black and white. Object to politicians shamelessly pandering to religion and you're automatically a left wing lunatic. One or the other. With me or against me. No shades of gray. No compromise. Simply put, no intelligence. Cnnsuckssucks.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Oh you mean the DEMONIZING LEFT who's daily mission is to portray every republican, libertarian, conservative or tea party member as a racist elitest white christian?

      Guess what? The Majority are on to you. And there's plenty of well-meaning Democrats who woke up realizing the same thing.

      THATS why you're out, and out for good.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  10. Separation of Politicians (state) and Wallets (their church)

    Vote Green!
    Vote Libertarian!
    Vote Reform!
    ... just don't vote (D) or (R)!

    September 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  11. Robert

    Why would Jesus support the President? Seriously, and not just our current one. John 18:36 – Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." Translation: I don't rule your land. – That being said, why would God call five people and say "lead your nation unto me"? I think God's a bit more on the ball than mankind, and I'm pretty sure he'd have chosen a SINGLE chosen one... But who knows, maybe God wanted 5 people to run for President. BTW, how does God feel about the Death Penalty? Especially considering that the coming of Jesus cancelled out the 'eye for an eye' philosophy from the Old Testament... Frankly, being a Christian, I've come to the conclusion you can find almost any verse from the bible and fit it to your aims... and it seems like this is what they're doing.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  12. mrability

    ANYONE OF THESE SELF PROCLAIMED PROFITS ARE LOSERS.

    GOD WILL NOT BE KIND TO THESE RELIGIOUS COOKS

    KEEP THIS CRAP OUT OF GOVT PERIOD

    THEN TAX ALL LOSER RELIGION

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

      You should be taxed for not knowing how to spell.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • saopaco

      Which ones are the "loser" religions? I want to get started ASAP!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • TheWiz

      A little computing tip for you. The "caps lock" button is just on the left side of your keyboard. You may have wondered why you're typing all in capital letters, and that's why. So, press that, and you will stop hurting your eyes and those of the rest of us, and you'll stop looking like a raving lunatic too.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • saopaco

      @TheWiz.
      Classic!

      "Get on down, get on down the roooad"

      September 14, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  13. Rich39

    Perry? Ever wonder what he is hiding? Never trust a person who says he a bigger Christian than other people. A person who hides behind the Bible. Jesus is disppointed in this man. He'a another Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swagett. A lover boy.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Free

      The Pharisees acted like they were better believers too, and we know how Jesus felt about that kind of att.itude, don't we?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  14. GEM

    This brazen display of pious schmoozing is disgustingly self-serving. If these politicians were truly Christian, they would know that what they are doing is taking the name of the Lord in vain. If their supporters knew that, they'd be ashamed to support them. I'm Christian and unfortunately, it's situations like this that give Christians a bad name.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • saopaco

      Word.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  15. yeah yeah yeah!

    "Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child."— Robert A. Heinlein

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

      "Most" gods?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  16. Leafonthewind

    "Religious devotion and piety does not inherently equal governing competence." If only more American voters realized that! When did it become a popularly held belief that a political candidate who did not profess Christian faith was evil? I do not believe that most of these GOP candidates are sincere. They are merely telling us what we want to hear, according to the political and social analysts they all employ. Political candidacies have become advertising campaigns run by Madison Avenue types, with God and Jesus two of the most important, necessary ingredients for success. As voters, we have sold out to these panderers and are getting exactly what we deserve. Instead of actually going to the trouble of thinking about important political issues, we allow candidates to tell us what to fear and who to blame. Common sense has become an oxymoron.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  17. Burbank

    SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE: Any candidate of any party that starts spouting religion immediately looses my interest and my vote!

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

      Sadly, that leaves us with exactly no one to vote for.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Leafonthewind

      This highlights an important issue

      Do most Athiests vote?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • TheWiz

      Then you're nothing but a bigot yourself. Case in point, albeit a foreign context: Tommy Douglas, founding leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, considered by that nation the father of its universal medical care system, voted by Canadians as the greatest of their countrymen in history. He was also a Baptist pastor, who used religious language, even going so far to paraphrase Blake "We must build Jerusalem in this our green and pleasant land". I'm going to place my comment above, but, I'll say this, the stuff that Douglas stood for would give the TEA Party a conniption fit, because he actually took the Christian gospel seriously. There are some public figures who engage in public life out of a sense of spiritual vocation. I doubt Bachmann, Perry and the rest are among them. But, just because someone uses religious language means they want to establish a right-wing theocracy.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • saopaco

      Loose the Kraken!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  18. calinfidel

    I say let them keep it up until their credibility is totally destroyed and people get fed up with having their intelligence insulted. Let the candidates see for themselves the disadvantage of being Tea Party puppets.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  19. Hypatia

    I talked to God. She says (and I quote) 'Yo, wazzup, shut up Rick and Michelle, you're roots need retouching."

    September 14, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Leafonthewind

      I don't believe in god, but if I did, I would assume that he or she would know the difference between your and you're.

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

      The real god would not have used "you're" incorrectly.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • IamTheRealGod

      Crap! Beaten by a fellow member of the spelling police!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Free

      Leafonthewind
      Have you heard people speak in tongues? I think the rules of grammar and correct spelling are the least of God's communication problems.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  20. ME

    Hearing a voice in your head telling you what to do is a symptom of schizophrenia.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:17 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.