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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. ed

    "It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch (sic) as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness." [March 30, 1863] Abraham Lincoln

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

      And this is relevant to the story–how?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Lesieie

      BTW, "insomuch" was proper usage of the day, and would not be improper usage today.

      Don't make host Abe sound stupid. He'd run intellectual rings around these dopes.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  2. UppityAgainSpeaks

    The old saying that religion and politics don't mix really has meaning. Look at what happens at many family dinner tables – really nasty.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  3. Theist2

    "In April Governor Perry proclaimed Days of Prayer for Rain to end his State's drought. God ignored this well-intentioned request.
    In August, Governor Perry announced his candidacy for the the Republican nomination, claiming that God was "calling" him to run for President.
    In September, God punished Governor Perry for wrongly invoking his name by setting his drought-ridden state on fire.
    It seems clear that God does not like Governor Perry and does not want him to run for President."

    Could not agree more. Governor Perry is the essence of the biblical definition of the word "hypocrite."

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

      Why is it most people accept the fact that Hitler youth were indoctrinated from a young age to believe in the myths of the Nazi superiority, but won't admit that the myths of religion are nothing more than another indoctrination?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  4. humtake

    Using this logic, you are inferring the candidates should not campaign directly towards any demographics at all. Now, I'd love that to happen, but trying to stop that from happening is never going to work. Presidential hopefuls will always try to talk about how much they love religion, minorities, social classes, etc. If you are truly worried about this, I'd recommend doing whatever you can to reframe your thought process or you will worry about this until you die.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  5. The Pope

    Don’t be fooled by candidates’ God talk. We only do it because we need the money. We don't want them cutting into our profits.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  6. Lesieie

    God must be laughing. "All those bumpkins running around claiming they're 'called' in my name? How many candidates can fit on the head of a POTUS pin?"

    September 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  7. Theist2

    @A Theist: Yes, the prayer rally was actually very exclusive. Yes, they did say that "only certain Christians can come" in more ways than one. Unfortunately, Perry, Bachman, and their extreme right-wing supporters only see and recognize their specific brand of fundamental evangelical protestant christianity - i.e., to the exclusion of the vast majority of the world's christians (not to mention members of other non-christian faiths).

    September 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • A Theist

      Really? Was it in the flyers or something? Wow... I'm just a little shocked. (no sarcasm)

      It's interesting that a group who's trying to win the vote from as many sectors as possible would say outright, "Only some of you are welcome." What denominations did they allow for?

      September 14, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Travois

    In April Governor Perry proclaimed Days of Prayer for Rain to end his State's drought. God ignored this well-intentioned request.
    In August, Governor Perry announced his candidacy for the the Republican nomination, claiming that God was "calling" him to run for President.
    In September, God punished Governor Perry for wrongly invoking his name by setting his drought-ridden state on fire.
    It seems clear that God does not like Governor Perry and does not want him to run for President.

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

      That's actually pretty humorous!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  9. rick perrytwit ... slack jawed bible thumper

    Here in Texas we have definitive proof that the Virgin Mary didn't poop.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  10. cnnsucks

    Hey look! It's 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 3:06 pm |
    • Lesieie

      ?? This didn't make sense.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • vfr800cr250

      Dude, did I sleep through the elections again? Man, I can't believe 2012 is almost over.......wait a minute........you're not actually speaking from facts, you're just spouting non-sense.

      Nominate Bachmann or Perry or some other born again fake christian and we'll see how it goes.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Julie

      Yeah, "sense" doesn't apply to this guy

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

      Three blatant DENIAL statements in a row – Capital!

      three blind mince, see how they run!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Mark

      Sorry but what on earth are you babbling about, your incoherent at best. I am an independent voter – and I can definitely say the "I am more Christian than you" game is deeply offensive.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • NJBob

      Is your rant what people refer to as "speaking in tongues"?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Common Sense

      Lesieie, I agree, it's just hyperbolic nonsense from what I can see. They call it trolling

      September 14, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Robert

      Did you happen to note that the author is a committed Christian and former Baptist minister?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • cnnsucks

      Mark, don't take yourself so seriously no one else does.

      Loving the comments tho libs, proving with every statement how fully up the creek you are. Keep em going!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • AmericanSam

      @cnnsucks Please, referring to people with whom you disagree as if our opinions are of no consequence at all is rather offensive. I understand you have beliefs that you want others to believe as well, but you aren't going to win us over by insulting us.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • rich

      "republican, libertarian, conservative or tea party member as a racist elitest white christian"...wow the most redundant thing I've ever read.

      September 14, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  11. Dsopinion

    I wholeheartedly agree with the author of this article, I don't share his belief in religion, but I certainly share his opinion on keeping it out of our politics.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  12. vfr800cr250

    God also called upon them to fire tens of thousands of federal employees, take away unemployment benefits, ensure that only those that can afford it can hope to receive health care, use fear tactics to instill hatred of another faith, assist corporate America in their quest to pollute and piillage more, and make sure the wealthy are well cared for. What? You don't think that's what Jesus would do?

    September 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • AmericanSam

      Good use of satire, but I fear it falls on deaf ears. The people who need to understand the irony the most are the ones who are least likely to understand it. Is there a way that it could be said that would not alienate, but rather build the bridges that we need to build? Perhaps something like "Real religion comes not from the symbol but from what lies behind that symbol. The Bible would be just a book if it did not demand that we be good to our fellow human beings. Anyone can wave a Bible around. Few will fight for what is good and just."

      September 14, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  13. SciFiChickie

    I've said it before & here I go again... Since America was founded on the principals of Separation of Church & State... The ONLY relevant question about religion for an American Presidential candidate is... Do you feel that Separation of Church & State is necessary for a fair & impartial government & if you do, Why would you oppose "Gay Marriage"?

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

      exactly right

      September 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Dsopinion

      well said, I'd love to hear that asked at one of those town hall events, if not to hear a real answer, just to see them squirm

      September 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Neece

      I agree 100%.

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

      Trying to get the vote of Christians has nothing to do with the separation of church and state. All it means is that the politician is trying to get their vote. Just like when they go to minority rich areas to try to get the minority vote. Just like when they go to gay rights rallies to try to get the gay votes.

      Now, if they were trying to pass laws that would give Christians rights and nobody else, then you may have something to argue about. But, all they are doing is trying to get the Christian vote. That does have anything to do with separation of church and state.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • vfr800cr250

      @humtake – Asking for a vote to be a policy-maker on a national scale by demonstrating your religious beliefs has everything to do with church and state. This person will be in a position of power and is publicly demonstrating a preference for one religion over another. While that act itself may not violate the idea of separation of chruch and state it clearly shows that a candidate is dangerously close to that line and may try to stretch it.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  14. kman821

    If gOD actually existed ... the last thing IT woud do is call anyone into American politics!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • vfr800cr250

      I strongly suspect God thought reality TV was cool long before reality TV was cool. If you think about it politics makes total sense in that context.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  15. TonyK

    Hey conservative types who like to quote scripture. Remember this one?

    "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." Matt 23:27

    September 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Lesieie

      Right on.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  16. Lucifer's Left Knee

    Throughout most of recorded history, those who claim they are "called by god" are usually the first to start eliminating those who don't agree with them.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  17. Privateperson

    Right on the dot with this essay. I can't say how angry I am that religion has become the weapon of choice for so many to beat up people who disagree with them. It is irrational, invasive, and insulting. I am both horrified and mystified by those who think it's ok.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • BenButtons

      I'd love to get honest, reasoned and (relatively) polite responses to the following. I get that there are a number of athiests on board and, while I disagree with your views, I respect your right to have them. However, athiest, while not believing in a particular religion, certainly have their own views on morality. What is the difference between one man's view of morality not backed by religion and another man's view of morality backed by religion? We seem to be getting caught up on the "religion" aspect of this, but most of us have differing views on morality, whether based in religion or not, and we would all bring those with us in support of our politics. I just don't see much of a difference at the end of the day.

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

      “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
      Sinclair Lewis
      Now there is a prophetic statement.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Mark

      Fair question; does it really matter? I am not atheist but rather agnostic – nice way of saying yes God *might* exist, or not, I don't lose any sleep over it BUT if you had a car accident, and I can help then I would help you out of that car, I dont steal, dont lie, I do not speak poorly of Christians; or values and morality are not defined by a book, they are defined by our character.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  18. NJBob

    If the candidates want to talk about god, that's fine with me. I want to know before I vote which candidates are going to try to shove their religious beliefs down my throat. And if some candidates hear voices "calling" them to run for office, then I damn well want to know that too because that candidate is mentally ill. A secular humanist would be so refreshing......but excuse me. I must be dreaming.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Lesieie

      As a professing Christian–I agree with you 100%! Faith is personal. Character is political.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      I dream of the day that we have rational atheist leaders. However, I must admit that I think there are closet atheists in leadership now and they only use the religion card to garner votes.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • kman821

      Unfortuntely, no one can get elected POTUS without stating a belief in a christian gOD ... how effed up is that?

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

      @Awkward: I believe Obama is one of them. He's way too smart to believe in that nonsense, but the lawyer in him tells him it's the smart thing to do.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      @jimmymax: Nice, I'm not the only one who has has thought the same thing! His upbringing and his general demeanor have always led me to believe he could be an undercover atheist. In fact, his father was an atheist as well.. not that it really matters.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • A Theist

      @Awkward
      "his father was an atheist as well.. not that it really matters."

      Trust me, it doesn't 😉

      September 14, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      @A Theist: Hi!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  19. olcranky

    all the god talk is the "dog whistle" the dominionists blow to get the religious fundamentalists to vote for them (even if it is against their own self interests). it helps these candidates avoid any rational discussion about the most critical issues

    September 14, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • kman821

      There lies the rub ... rational vs. religion. If there is a gOD ... why didn't he make his follwers more intelligent?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • BenButtons

      Ahhh, the elitism of the athiests. It never fails to disappoint.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • kman821

      BenButtons ... Speaking of "it never fails to disappoint" ... that certainly describes your gOD.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  20. wonder

    Wonder which of these intelligent folks are so naive to believe they have all the answers to getting back on track on their own.

    sorry to burst your bubble, It takes wisdom from the Almighty to get back on track.

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

      Says who?

      September 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Sorry that you can't think for yourself and need to rely on telepathy from your sky god to solve problems. Real sorry about your mental affliction. Sorry.

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

      LOL, the almighty? What's his phone number?

      September 14, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • kman821

      So ... you're peddling the idea that Perry and Bachmann are on track? That's a track worth staying off!

      Wonder ... I'm wondering what you're "thinking" with, but I'll guess you're sitting on it as you type!

      September 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Mark

      Your opinion that people are naive because they do not share your beliefs is what is really scary. I vote on character, positions, and reputation – not on what book sits on their shelf.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:32 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.