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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. Left Coast

    We elect anyone who says they were "called by God" to be President at our peril. For someone to say they were "called by God" to become a priest or minister is one thing. But to be a political leader seems to say they do not see any division between church and state. I'd say that counts for three strikes right there. Worse, it shows that they think they have some special connection to a force outside of themselves. Our last lamentable Commander in Chief thought he had a connection to supernatural forces. And he got us into two wars and presided over the destruction of the economy. No thanks. Let's not have any more of those "called by God."

    September 14, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  2. Realist

    We need to face the reality that anyone with a brain (i.e. people who are non-religious) are completely scr*wed in the next election.. The raging hordes of religious robots find plenty of fear day-to-day to keep them saying "Jesus" and "praying".. Current economic worries bring more fear which in turn brings more religious freaks.. then on top of that, the Republicans do nothing but campaign with fear in order to sink the hook even further. Theocracy here we come, at least for another 10-20 years until these tired old zealots begin to die off in sufficient numbers so sensible candidates can be fronted and elected by an intelligent public. Jesus, if you're out there, please protect me from your followers.. They've all gone quite mad... ..except for Marcus Bachmann, who is still quite gay.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • kman821

      I'll second that!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  3. rich

    Give me the atheist candidates; I don't need anyone that channels the invisible sky daddy or call upon them to solve disasters.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • yeahalright

      It's the last century that we'll have to put up with grownup children who still believe in fairy tales and wishing (praying) for fixes to problems. Religion is on the way down. Little peaks of hyperactivity here and there (like now) but the overall trend since the end of the middle ages is into irrelevancy.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • rich

      @ yeahalright – that's not soon enough for me.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  4. kman821

    Religion ... the opiate of the dumb and dumber ... which explains Perry and Bachmann.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Just when I thought you couldn't possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this... and totally redeem yourself!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  5. jschau

    Religion, the greatest proponents of hate since recorded history. Religion now, the greatest proponent of hate and the return to the middle ages.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  6. Jack

    Great article and I would say that all of these republican presidential candidates and any other politician, national, state or local, that professes to be this great Christian and then votes or acts for special interest and not the people they represent is no Christian.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • kman821

      I've yet to meet a professed christian Republican who acted like a christian.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  7. Lucifer's Left Knee

    If the christianity cult takes over all of our leaders in government, America as a free nation is doomed. It'll be time to start mustering up an armed resistance movement.

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

      Wow...an anti-Christian who calls hiimself Lucifer's Left Knee...now THERE'S someone whose opinion we should all value...NOT!

      September 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Lucifer's Left Knee

      Wow, i'm in awe of your wit and repartee.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Why the left knee?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Lucifer's Left Knee

      @Awkward – cause I thought the left knee was funnier than the right knee.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      @Lucifer's Left Knee: Oh okay. I thought it possibly had some sort of ulterior sinister meaning. Good name, carry on!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  8. Aidan

    When it comes to god belief, there are two kinds of people-the gullible and the con artist.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  9. Chris

    Gotta say I'm also tired of God-talk in politics. Whatever happened to SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE? God doesn't create jobs or feed starving children. If it did, the 10% of Americans currently unemployed would be employed and/or wouldn't have to worry about where their kids' next meal was coming from.

    This isn't a problem that can be prayed away. Stop bringing your imaginary friend into places where all he does is bring false hope.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      The sad (to you at least) truth is that many ppl do have a faith. It's a part of them as much as anything else in their personality. So you can't scrub the religion out of a person just because they want to run for an office.

      That said, unless they are going to be so hard charging about their faith now...they should be later as well. Don't play religion just to garner votes.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Brian

      America needs a President. When we need an organizer for the worldwide cookies and punch social I will be sure to call Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman I'm sure they would do a fantastic job!!! Look at picture two, Rick Perry had to close his eyes so God's hot faith could pour all over his face haha.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Uncouth...it may be an inexorable part of themselves, but they could at least have the decency to say "My religious beliefs are my own business and will not inform how I deal with a citizenry of myriad religious and non-religious beliefs."

      September 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Chris, I am somewhat torn on this one. While I agree with you that praying will not cause these jobs to be created (at least in the way the Prosperity Salvation folks would have you believe) the faith the people have can help provide the moral strength they need in the face of their adversity. However, in order to get a job the only way that will work is to put in as many applications and resumes as possible to as many places as will take them. It means going out and networking, volunteering to keep busy (and to be seen by potential employers) and self promoting. If a little prayer helps their confidence, then so be it.

      But like Jack Kennedy said in 1960, we have other problems that need solving first. We still have old people who cannot afford their medical needs. We still do not have enough schools. As a result of not enough schools we have too many in prison. And now we have created a "global economy" where companies would rather ship jobs overseas than hire in the USA. What Congress needs to do is change the tax code to make it less desirable for a company to set up a job overseas when there are US candidates who could do that job. The same with those special visas that get issued to some folks. If there are Americans who could do those jobs, why bring someone in from India or Korea to do so?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  10. Mr Morster & family

    "When religion becomes merely another political trick, we all lose. The politicization of faith profanes the sacred." Exactly right. Amen!
    Jesus wasn't a democrat, republican, socialist or nationalist. Jesus was a non-conformist, a thorn in the side of political powers of the day.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Tut tut

      He was also a blasphemer, a liar, and a swindler. That's why they executed him. He was a criminalized religious extremist who angered the Pharisees – the Orthodox Jews who make ceremony and tradition into a god. Jews, like Muslims and Christians, have no problem murdering someone of a different sect if they become outraged over a religious POV.
      Hypocrites all, including Jesus who had started a new Jewish sect. He wasn't preaching to non-Jews. He called them "dogs" – one of the worst insults during that era. He's only letting Jews into Heaven, or didn't you read your bible closely enough?

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

      Tut, somehow I don't think the ones who need to hear it are going to listen to you.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  11. Rational

    "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."

    Yup. This is all you had to say. Problem is, most of the voting block is so inherently irrational as to believe that someone of a differing faith or no faith at all is not trustworthy, or worse, "evil".

    Our governance has nothing to do with religion and the establishment cause made that the case from jump street. Why can most evangelicals (for one) just not understand that?

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

      Thick-headed religious people will never even try to understand. You're talking to people who are blind and deaf thanks to their extreme indoctrinated beliefs. Their religion fills their brain and nothing else, like wisdom or common sense, can enter.
      Totally blocked.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  12. Joe The Plumber

    God is a Republican – didnt you get the memo?

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

      Plumbers use memos?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  13. Buddy

    One's personal religious faith should be just that: personal.

    With these candidates campaigning at churches, one could start to think that these religious organizations are preaching from the pulpit who their congregation should vote for. If I'm not mistaken, that's goes against campaign laws.

    If that's the situation, I see no reason why these organizations shouldn't start paying taxes like the rest of us.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  14. Johnny

    “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.” Not much has changed since 1960, has it?

    September 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  15. WWRRD

    It has been a bit overdone. But they are pandering to people who wear their faith on their sleeve. I appreciate people whose faith gives them strength and patience to carefully consider modern problems and act with conviction , empathy in a way modeled by Christ. The fact that not all Americans share that faith is inconsequential. AA persons faith (when sincere) shapes them as a person. We are voting for that person.

    I don't appreciate the candidates flaunting it as a campaign strategy, but then again there are certain public officials that act with an integrity and humility that you can tell is shaped by their faith. The only one I see acting somewhat like that in this race is Jon Huntsman. The others is too early to tell.

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

      You might recall that Obama did not wear his Christian faith on his sleeve while campaigning. He talks like a preacher sometimes, which is annoying, but he is trying to help all Americans, and the Republicans, religious or not, are standing firm on refusing to help the American people unless the ultra-rich get more tax breaks. See the disconnect?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Mr Morster & family

      "people wearing their faith on their sleeves...." Jesus called them Pharisees, and he didn't particularly like them. Maybe that's the message that Perry, Bachman, Romney, Huntsman, Santorum, and the like should learn from this.
      Then again, Jesus was not campaigning in some popularity test or election, was he? Keep politics and faiths separate, it'll make us all happier.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  16. libfreak48

    I don’t object to candidates talking about their faith in the least, Reverend. I don’t object to Romney’s Mormon beliefs. I don’t object to Paul’s outreach to Evangelicals.

    What I DO object to is seeing Perry and Bachmann embrace religious leaders who proudly and enthusiastically talk of the exclusion of all other faiths which disagree with theirs by any means necessary, and their religion’s need for dominion over our country to the detriment of every single other religion, which is the faith these two candidates – and Palin as well – have embraced.

    What I object to is seeing a rally in Houston to pray for our country which excludes every other faith – including other Christian denominations – as irrelevant and even heretical.

    What I object to is the potential for rights to be trampled in order to promote a specific set of religious beliefs should one of these three manage to get into the Oval Office.

    None of this is the United States of America. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. But it is what these three extreme-right Fundamentalist candidates represent.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • A Theist

      I'm going to qualify what I'm about to say with the fact that I agree with you for the most part. That being said, was the prayer rally really exclusive? Did they say, "Only certain Christians can come!"? I worry sometimes that the whole tolerance movement–while I agree with it in many ways–goes too far, and demands that individuals give up personal beliefs so as not to offend.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Peace2All

      Well said.

      Peace...

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

      Completely agree with you. Some slight religious talk here and there is going to happen. But what Bachmann and Perry have done is outrageous and scary. You nailed my feelings and sentiments completely. Huntsman shouldn't have to lie about how he feels his daughter was placed with them (and anyone who has ever adopted outside of the U.S. would understand this). Romney shouldn't have to refuse to answer any question about being a Mormon just so no one ever had to hear about it. Same thing with even Obama. Religion is not the problem. Excluding other religions as Perry and Bachmann are doing is the problem. Excluding someone who is not of faith is also the problem. Huntsman, Mitt, Paul, Obama have never left this impression.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  17. Tom Paine

    "If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up." ~ Max von Sydow in "Hannah and Her Sisters

    September 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  18. Vulpes

    CORRECTION: Why is it that these good Christian say things and try to convince the rest of us that what they say are facts. Many of the things stated by them are either demonstrably false or extremely misleading (i.e. Look up quotes by Michelle Bachmann) In addition, statements are in terms of "I'm right and you're wrong" and not "my view vs your view" . Being uncompromising and arrogant helps no one in the end and is certainly not Christian.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • A Theist

      Agreed.

      The only facts are those found in Mathematics! (And maybe a bit in Physics). Lately my philosophical compass has had me walk away from Objectivism as a reality, and more as a perceived reality.

      September 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @A Theist

      Hello, my friend...

      I might suggest some reading from Dr. Alfred Korzybski and his philosophies on 'map v. territory' distinctions. Very interesting and thought-provoking.

      Peace brother...

      September 14, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • A Theist

      @Peace, thanks for the reading material. I'll check it out and get back to you on what I think! 😀

      Shalom

      September 14, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • A Theist

      Yeah from the few sources I've read so far, it tends to agree rather well with my current perception of what "reality" is and how people define Objectivism. I was thinking about it just this morning, how all numbers, including whole numbers, are really just arbitrary. The number 1 is really just 1.00000000000000, and that what I call a "whole" is really a simplification of the nature of the universe.

      I took a class called Cognition and the Brain, and it took a rather Postmodern look at the brain and how man perceives reality. Everything that we "know" is really just an amalgamation of information passed to us from sensory input and language. It is for this reason that I never assume to Know anything with certainty, but postulate to the best of my knowledge what my reality is. It is also for this reason that I have decided not to judge others, for all I know they could be manifestations of my own mind, or if nothing else, their perception of reality will be different from my own.

      That is why I find it fascinating that human beings can reach a consensus or agreement about anything. It makes you wonder what happens to one's perception when an agreement is made. For that matter, how fortunate that mankind appears to share a general consensus of perception of reality!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  19. Anne

    An excellent, intelligent artlcle – and that's the "truth"! My feelings exactly

    September 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  20. Vulpes

    Why is it that these good Christian things up and try to convince the rest of us that what they say are facts. Many of of the things stated by there people of demonstrably false or extremely misleading (i.e. Look up quotes by Michelle Bachmann) In addition, statements are in terms of "I'm right and you're wrong" and not "my view vs your view" . Being uncompromising and arrogant helps no one in the end and is certainly not Christian.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:31 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.