My Take: When it comes to 'God' in our political platforms, less is more
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presided over the reinsertion of 'God' into the Democrats' platform.
September 6th, 2012
12:27 PM ET

My Take: When it comes to 'God' in our political platforms, less is more

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I first heard that God had gone missing from the Democratic Party platform from a Facebook friend who rejoiced in a godless platform as a triumph for the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.

I was surprised, however, because since the loss of John Kerry to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential race, Democrats have gotten religion.

President Obama used the word God five times in his inaugural address. And according to my search of the database of The American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he has used it thousands of times more during his presidency.

In remarks at annual National Prayer Breakfasts, Obama called us “children of God” in 2009, spoke of “God’s grace” in 2010, quoted from the Book of Job on “God’s voice” in 2011 and invoked “God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’” in 2012.

The president also invoked the almighty in more prosaic settings, including fundraisers and television interviews and remarks to Super Bowl champions.

This April he used a weekly radio address to talk about Passover and Easter—“the story of the Exodus” and “”the all-important gift of grace through the resurrection of his son.”

And in dozens of speeches over the last two years Obama has spoken of our “God-given potential.”

That is the formulation that found its way back into this year’s Democratic Party platform, after "God" had gone missing in a prior draft.

None of this should really matter, of course. There isn’t any straight line from an affirmation of our “God-given potential” to any particular federal law. But it does matter because we continue as a nation to wage a culture war that goes back to the late 1970s.

That was when Republicans decided to start hammering away at their Democratic opponents on so-called “values” questions and in the process turned U.S. politics into a decades-long referendum on the libertinism of the 1960s.

Foolishly, the Democrats responded as my Facebook friend did, by invoking Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state. But being the anti-God party in a nation in which 95% or so believe in God proved to be a losing strategy. So the Democrats reversed course in 2004.

For better or for worse, we now have two religious parties in the United States. The Constitution may be godless, but both parties are hell-bent on presenting themselves as godly.

Is this a good thing? If you believe, as George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address, that “religion and morality” are “these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens," then perhaps it is.

But do we really want “God” to serve as a “prop” of our politics? Apparently, the answer of both parties to that question is yes.

The decision of Democratic Party delegates to reinsert God into their party's platform was clearly motivated by political calculations rather than theological acumen. But are the decisions of the Republican Party any different?

Are the repeated references to "providence" and "God" in its platform proof that its policies are more godly?

In its discussion of the Second Amendment, the GOP platform informs us that our citizens’ “God-given right of self-defense” extends not only to gun ownership but also “the right to obtain and store ammunition without registration.” Really? Is bearing a semi-automatic weapon really the answer to "What would Jesus do?"

Is the fact that the GOP platform refers to “God” twelve times rather than one supposed to prove that Republicans are 12 times more godly?

As a matter of tradition, Americans have always mixed church and state, but they have almost always tried to do so in ways that were respectful of adherents of minority religions and of citizens without any religion at all. So what our two religious parties are doing today runs in the American grain.

Still, I can't help but feel that the now-obligatory references to God in virtually every presidential speech and every party proclamation are more about pridefully asserting one's godliness than humbly asserting one's faith.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his followers not to pray, as the hypocrites do, on the street corners, so they might be seen and admired, but to pray instead in their closets, in secret, with the doors shut.

Today I'd like a little more of that sort of religion, please, and a little less of the street corner hucksterism of the Democrats and Republicans alike.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church and state • Culture wars • Politics • United States

soundoff (1,491 Responses)
  1. heysus

    Amen. I dont need to hear about your Jesus hugging ways, just tell me what your going to do for the country and thus myself.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  2. MullahsAre Us

    The Pilgrims came here to avoid persecution for praciticing their religion...and now 400 years later both sides of the political divide are pandering to the evangelicals. Want to see what happens when you let religion overtake government? The mullahs of Iran and the Taliban of Afghanistan will be happy to take you on a guided tour. Your religion, or your lack of it, is YOUR choice. Not the government's. You want to practice your religion...there are churches, synagagues, mosques and revival tents for your dining and dancing pleasure. The platforms of the major parties should be religion-neutral and deity-free.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  3. common sense

    When God is engrained in your belief system, how could it be fully seperated from anything you do? It is a nice thought to think about seperation of Church and state, with liberty for all – but seperation of God and society is an entirely different question. I am not sure that is reflected in your thoughts, Stephen Prothero. Furthermore, the 'church' is not 'God', and you crudely equate the two.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • JustAnotherAtheist

      What many atheists/agnostics/progressives/socialists don't understand is that Founding Fathers did not want a state religion, but they were not a-religious. They were of a different faith. Of course, religious principles (ethics) pervade our society. That is not at odds with having no state-mandated religion. Atheism is a type of religion, it just doesnt' have a deity at the center of it. I cringe when extremists (either religious or non-religious) take their arguments to the ad absurdum.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  4. John The Electrician

    Like the Johnny Cash song" Just pick up the reciever, and I'll make you a beliver".

    September 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • MullahsAre Us

      That's the problem with religion...and love, for that matter. Whether you believe in them or not, they sure make darn good song subjects. I'm prepared to say that religious matters should be left out of the party platforms, but you'll have to pry my Johnny Cash records out of my cold dead hands.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  5. joe

    They had to vote 3 times because the NO's were louder than the Yes's to put God back into the 'Platform'. How humiliating.
    Progressive Democrats were very, very upset. The American Democratic Party has been ambushed and taken over by 'Progressive Democrats' (Socialists) If you saw this live you heard their (Progressive Democrats) voices loud and clear.
    There is separation from church and state so no one church can rule another. (Example: Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddha, LDS, etc., etc. NEVER is there a separation of God and state. God is found throughout our history and heritage and along with every other religion God is worshiped. And that's what makes America the most unique spot on the planet. You may worship God or not worship God in your own faith. You can separate church and state, that is a good thing, but if you try and remove God from our country, it will destroy us. It has been tried throughout ALL history to remove God and it has failed and led to the deaths of millions if not billions.
    So if you saw this live, you KNOW this video was edited to deceive. (Deception: Malice with forethought.) Be very careful my Democrat friends, as an Independent myself, these 'Progressives' should more than worry us.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • John The Electrician

      The video showed Muslums yelling. I think it was the jeruselum thing that got their attenion. How about we leave Jews out of the platform.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  6. Gyango

    "Paris is well worth a Mass"

    September 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  7. serdich

    30% Americans are non-religious:
    http redcresearch.ie/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/RED-C-press-release-Religion-and-Atheism-25-7-12.pdf

    September 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Charles Darwin

    I'd rather politicians believe in god, than believe they are god. Then you get states like North Korea.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • John The Electrician

      Smartest thing I heard all day. thank you

      September 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  9. StatisticsYouNoob

    16% of americans identify as no religion and/or atheist. get your statistics right.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • serdich

      30% define themselves as non-religious 13 drop from 78%:

      September 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • sam

      And those are only the ones who will admit it. Admitting it usually gets you some trouble.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  10. 29RealBlackMan29

    Yes I agree that god has nothing to do with man and his quest for personal gains. Politics is a nasty business that does not have the peoples needs first. If we were under one God then this world would need be in turmoil right now

    September 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  11. xnothinbutthetruth

    Always love the way "atheists" devote their lives to complaining about religion.. I understand you're persecuted by the religious – I get it... afterall I was a die hard atheist for 25 years... but it's because I WAS an atheist for so long, that I find how DEVOTED the atheist is to attacking any religious article, making anti-religion websites, blogs. talking about religion and how it isn't so, so incessantly – I find it rather humorous... like making a anti-football website because you don't like the game.

    So what... ? if you are really atheist – then it's a non issue... it's as relevant as unicorns or anything ELSE you don't believe in.. right? Or is it the fact that you don't actually 100% not believe? Maybe it's that you fight against it so fiercely because you want someone to prove to you that it IS so?

    Well guess what? No one can prove such a thing to you – it's something you prove to yourself. But still, I think you protest too much =)

    September 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      If the religious individuals kept religion where it should be (at home or church) and not trying to spread the gospel, people wouldn't criticize it. Keep it to yourself, keep it out of politics and no one will have anything to say about it.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • xnothinbutthetruth

      Hey Ken.... I don't believe you 🙂

      I don't believe that if religion was removed from EVERY single public aspect of life.. that people wouldn't still make websites.. and blogs.. and books.. and movies and entire movements based on the NON EXISTENCE of something. If you really feel that way it should be as bothersome to you as someone believing in unicorns.... so what? It's their own business.

      I'm under the impression that atheists WANT to argue about religion – they THRIVE on it.... and the reason im under that impression: Because I was an atheist and that's how I was.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Speaking for myself I DO NOT want to argue. It doesn't solve any problems. Not worth my time. I've written it before. I DO NOT want to stop people from praying. You can say a prayer for me if you like. I would not be offended. In fact, I would be honored that you would think enough of me to say a prayer for me. My only problem is I DO NOT want laws written based on religion. The middle east is that way and it is a total disaster because everyone has their own interpretation of religion. We DO NOT need that here.

      September 6, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      One more point. We do make websites.. and blogs.. and books.. and movies and entire movements based on the NON EXISTENCE of something. It's called FICTION. Have you ever heard of Harry Potter?

      September 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  12. JustAnotherAtheist

    I'm an atheist and have no problem with "in God we Trust" on our coins, our presidents invoking God in speeches and the like. This country was founded on the morals of the Judeo-Christian ethic. I don't have to believe in God to align with those ethics.
    Booing the inclusion of "god-given" talents as an adjective in the Dems platform shows just how far they have fallen off the wagon in terms of embracing our history and heritage. It seems that today the Dems are for anything that isn't "traditional" and against anything that are seen as founding principals. Whites are bad. Non-whites are good. No Marriage is good, Traditional Marriage is bad. Freeloading is good, hard work is bad. Having society being responsible for every personal decision you make is good, being responsible for your own decisions is bad. The collective is good, Individualism as bad. Mediocrity is celebrated, exceptional talent is mocked.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • xnothinbutthetruth

      First half of your comment made sense..

      The second half? Complete nonsense. "collectivism good"... just silly sounding – Democrats are about as "individualistic" as they come (ever heard the expression "herding cats") but they also believe we are all in this together. It isn't either/or – after all it is obviously both. Same is the case with all of your other "X is bad" "Y is good". Marriage and a conventional father/mom family is GOOD... but if you have a non-traditional family it's not my place to call it "bad". It's your life and not my business.. not my job to tell you who to sleep with either.. or who to marry. Because Democrats will not jump on the bandwagon to be "against" minorities doesn't mean we are "against" white people – again.. it isn't mutually exclusive.,, it isn't one or the other.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  13. little stevie

    To the comment by ERH....your self -important arrogance is astounding! Comments such as yours just prove the point of all the free minded people in this country.

    September 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  14. Bob

    Keeping God out of a platform is like keeping liberty, equality or any other concept out of a platform. They are all un-empirical and unprovable concepts. There is less empirical evidence that all men are created equal than there is for the great flood... and yet we choose to live as if it's true. Why do we think God is somehow different from other un-empirical intangible concepts that we all take for granted?

    September 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  15. the voice of reason

    No one will ever get elected as President in this country unless they believe in a supernatural deity and/or lick the testicles of the NRA.

    September 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  16. JR in Texas

    The vast majority of the American public is ignorant of politics, government, and history. Likeminded people tend to believe what they are told at social gatherings, church, or by whichever news media they subscribe to. Ignorance, prejudice, and peer pressure each lends itself to easy exploitation by self-serving organizations like the Republican Party. GOP policy is a scandal.

    September 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • mirrorview

      JR do all of us a favor grow up and become someone that respects other opinions. You can't have the world your way and if you try someone will take you out like the world did to Hitler or Saddam. This world has different culture and they need to blend together!

      September 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  17. MJSouth

    I get very nervous when people do things in the name of God!!

    A believer

    September 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  18. McBob79

    After the Dems rejected God from their platform (only to reinstate after polling found it to be unpopular), I have to ask that question the liberals have asked over and over again. What would Jesus do? The funniest part about the hypocrisy of this political party is that a large portion 50% or greater still want nothing to do with God or Israel for that matter. What a sad commentary. I don't feel comfortable with that mindset in charge of the country.

    September 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • serdich

      Well go back to the Dark Ages...the religeon is over. As of now 30% of all American are non-religious..take that for a comfort.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Bob

      "What would Jesus do?"

      Nuke the GOP hypocrites.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  19. Freethinker Seeking Reason

    Great article! As a secular American still fuming over yesterday's DNC debacle, it is sad that the Democrats also feel so obligated to pander to the delusionally religious crowd and thus mix state and church. The voice vote reaction of the crowd was far less than two thirds, but yet Obama got what he wanted. I may agree with many of his policies, but his religious affliction is just as troubling as the nutters he's running against. Religion is an anachronism in the modern world, and both religious parties are leading the U.S. into the intellectual abyss, just to varying degrees of depth. Shame, shame, shame on the Democrats – I thought you were so much better than that, but of course they are the far lesser of two evils, as the Republicans are truly living in some horrific alternate universe.

    This whole stinking theopolitical mess makes me consider voting for the Green Party, as they have an excellent affirmation of the separation of state and church, but alas, that would be the equivalent of throwing my vote away to the ultra-insane Republicans.

    September 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Don't waste your time watching the conventions. Everything is set up to make people look good. The debates is the key. Once Mutt Romney is asked a tough question, he'll cackle, stall and not answer the question. That is the time to make your decision when the candidate has to answer questions without help, all alone and exposed for the world to see.

      September 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  20. Ezra

    For a fictional mythological figure, god stirs up a lot of trouble. Silly.

    September 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Are you Ezra Klein?

      September 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
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