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. pensimmon

    my beliefs are my personal affair, and I would never seek to impose them on others. How arrogant to suppose my thoughts and beliefs are better than another persons. There are many many different religions and beliefs in our wonderfully diverse country.
    They whould all be kept out of the political arena so that we are all treated equally. Not one of us is better than any one else. If you think differently, maybe we should all be concerned that Romney will start pushing Mormonism on us all.

    September 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • sam stone

      i agree

      September 18, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  2. joe12234

    "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."

    The key to that verse is "as the hypocrites do". Jesus was not saying not to pray in public. He was saying if you are praying in public and it is for your own self-aggrandizement and pride and not out of humility and selflessness, you are not impressing God at all and if you are doing it for your own prideful reasons, you are very well invoking the wrath of God.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  3. Tom

    Considering at the time that "seperation of church and state" was writen the King of England was telling the Church what it could/could not say or do. I believe it was there to keep government from meddling with the church, not to keep church ideology out of government. I think they figured that democracy will decide how much biblical ideolgy will be in our government at any given time. Murder, theft and adultry were all covered in the 10 commandments long before the consitution was writen.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • rochdoc

      and much before that Roman Church had to struggle to have authority to appoint its own Bishops which was a position controlled by kings. So the feeling is actually mutual. But in a democracy, you shouldn't think that you can neglect religion all together. People don't want to be pushed either way. Live and let live.

      September 17, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • kithope

      Murder and theft have been included in pretty much all codes of law whether they were biblically based or not. Believers in the Judeo-Christian do not have a monopoly on being good.

      September 17, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • louiske

      First, it is not democracy that you are heading to, but theocracy.
      Second murder theft and adultery was already punished way before the bible was written.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  4. scott

    do the people who hate the u.s. keep their god out of their platforms? hell no. what the f happened to this once great country? oh thats right, our govt was cut at the knees by the fed and then sold off to corporations.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  5. scott


    September 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  6. Crusader

    I agree. So stop the 'religious right' epithet the left wing extremists keep mentioning in the media. Jimmy Carter, Clinton..they were all church types...so apply this rule to ALL parties

    September 17, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  7. Isabel

    Religion is not a relationship with Jesus; and a relationship with Jesus is something worthy of thanks and praise and sharing; and leaving up to individuals the right to exercise their free will in how each of us makes our decision about Jesus. As believers, we are bound to Jesus and His bond servant by our choice to believe and to share what Jesus has done in our lives. Jesus is love and would we correct the political system if, instead of saying Jesus and God, we said "WE LOVE" - but nowadays, I don't know if we know the difference between spiritual, physical and perverted love. We live in tricky times, when if we don't educate ourselves on the truth, we will be quickly deceived. Its a human struggle for sure. We never get away from homework! First from school, and then to keep ourselves centered. So many people with contrasting points of view. We should settle on one course of action: Tolerance without Violence and Intimidation.

    September 17, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Anon

      Jesus can go fu*k himself.

      September 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  8. JamesW

    Religion in its purest form is not the problem. It is only when people hide behind anything that gives them a cover to do selfish things that is only for their own good. Be it Religion, Atheism, democracy, capitalism and so on.

    September 17, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Good point, well stated

      September 17, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • sam stone

      At what point have we had "religion in it's purest form"?

      September 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Anon

      Religion at it's purest form is dishonest.

      September 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  9. Peter

    Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? Indeed it is Your due! For among all the wise men of the nations..there is none like You. But they are altogether stupid and foolish in their discipline of delusion.... Jeremiah 10:7-8

    September 16, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  10. Ricke1949

    Read what the Koran says about the infidel. Then comment intelligently.

    September 16, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Sam

      Then what's your excuse?

      September 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Steven

      The Koran (for your information) is not a book Christians reference for anything. We understand the enemy, we are well aware of the presence of evil in the pages of ther Koran. I hope you have not spend an inordinate amount of time composing your trolling statement to impress yourself. Next time try helping someone that needs some kindness & brotherly love.

      September 17, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  11. Gavin

    I can find many examples where Mitt Romney has personally come to the aid of others and helped many people in need. He has given a great deal of his wealth to charity and toward helping his fellow man.Why is it that I cannot find similar examples in Barack Obama's life? I see a man of strong faith and principles in one man and a man whose claims, experience, and qualifications are superficial and without substance.

    September 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • herfules

      In answer to your question, it's called "confirmation bias."

      September 16, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • BradW

      Look here


      and here


      and then tell us who is giving a larger share of gross income. Also notice O'Bama's donations with after tax money compared to Romney's.

      September 16, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Dr Tom

      I'm sure there persons who are even mosre generous and religious than either of our candidates. That doesn't mean that they would be a better President. I wish the government would stay the hell out of religion and stick to secular matters. I'll practice my religion in private or with those I choose to.

      September 17, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • louiske

      are you blind or are you paid by M Romney to troll on cnn?
      What fine reasoning, he gives money to charity so he must be a good person, and he shouldn't pay his taxes... america has a 30+years gap in education. Astonishing.
      Every word of Romney is a lie. Just check the facts , i don't care about Obama. Check the facts. Not your "guts" since you are too naive too gullable.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  12. on StreetWise

    Most (a vast majority) don't understand the statement by Jesus; "Give what is Caesar's to Caesar, and give what is God's to God" That was a very clear mandate in the "Separate of Church" our Bill of Rights!

    September 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Bill Deacon


      September 17, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  13. myintx

    Religion is not as important as moral character. every time Obama opens his mouth he LIES. Obama said he would have the economy FIXED in 3 years or his presidency would be a 'one-term proposition' (his words, not mine. If you don't believe me, look it up). He said he would cut the deficit in half (his budget proposals didn’t even come close). He promised govt transparency (even Nancy didn’t get to see Obamacare before it passed). He promised green jobs (Solyndra was a failure). He promised no new taxes for the middle class (Obamacare is loaded with taxes). I could go on and on and on. You can go to promisegap . com, or obamalies . net or view youtubes "Obama 7 lies in 2 minutes" to get not just one or two but hundreds more examples.

    September 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • BradW

      Are we to suppose that the "Tea Party" Congress had no affect on what could have been done as compared to what was actually done?

      Seems to me the POTUS has done a pretty good job what with having a "do nothing" Congress chained to his legs.

      September 16, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • joan

      If you want to see the inaccuraices and lies by everyone, go to Factcheck.com . They ALL lies, exaggerate and distort to get their own points across. If you don't realize that, you are truly naive.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  14. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Mormonism is just the silly end of a larger problem, which is that religion itself is a con, and it's a con that you pull on your own mind. It's not unfair to ask serious candidate Mitt Romney if he really believes that Joseph Smith received golden plates from an angel in 1823 and translated them into "scripture" that contains not a single person or place name that has been shown to ever exist. Are you too gullible to be president if you believe in a world full of characters who appear in the historical record exactly as often as leprechauns?

    September 16, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • myintx

      Jeremiah "God Damn America" Wright

      September 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  15. JA

    The separation of church and state should be enough to keep religion out of politics, with the Establishment Clause as an added bonus. Where the he!! did we go wrong?

    September 16, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  16. Francis

    Stephen, how can anyone take you seriously?

    September 16, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  17. Tim

    Now we can say Dems are Godless commies.

    September 16, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Sam

      We can also say that you're a fool and a troll.

      September 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  18. Francis

    Stephen Prothero:
    I got it! So we are not supposed to let anything that is too important to us, or a core part of our belief system affect us politically or the way that we vote?

    September 16, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  19. Francis

    What percentage of the US population wants Health Care in it's soon to be form under ObamaCare? or...reduced and downsizing of government when the country is closer to bankruptcy than we have ever been?!?

    September 16, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  20. Francis

    Brilliant. The problem is that parties run on moral and religious platforms. Increasingly, the two parties have served to divided the country, and in doing so have deprived "the people" of making decisions that are otherwise "no brainers". Obama promised to come to the middle and he is not what he said he was. He is a left wing extremist, and has shoved his agenda down everyone's throat and told us to like it.

    September 16, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • anon

      The party represents the people. If running on moral or religous platforms is a problem, then the problem is obviously a society who sitll to some degree put value in moral or religous issues when they vote.

      Congress, CONGRESS shall make no law establishing a religion NOR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF. How in the HELL did that evolve (theres that pesky word again) into this asinine belief that it is somehow now ILLEGAL for people to strongly express their faith in public now?

      This isn't evolution, but MUTATION.

      September 16, 2012 at 10:58 am |
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About this blog

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.