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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. Greg

    Freedom of speech should include the freedom to talk about religion. If you don't like it, there are countries that restrict free speech that you could move to.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      No one has said that it doesn't.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  2. Don

    When Obama condones gay marriage he, as a Christian, is neglecting his duty to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel. To say to these people that what they are doing is sin according to God and that they should repent, turn from their sin and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. By taking this stance he is leading God's lost children to hell. It would be better for him to tie a mill stone around his neck and toss it into the sea.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • sam

      I think it would be very helpful if you demonstrated this trick with the stone for us first so we can make sure it works.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Anglican churches here in Canada perform gay marriage ceremonies.
      Are Anglicans not Christians?

      September 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • DanW

      Don, apparently "freedom of religion" to you means freedom to believe exactly as you do or your religion doesn't count.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      wow. Our bad – I guess we didn't realize that Carrie's mama had an even more Christarded brother.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      (Don that is.)

      September 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      "When Obama condones gay marriage he, as a Christian, is neglecting his duty to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel. "

      Of course, if you'd actually read your bible, you'd know that the gospels contains precisely zero references to gay marriage, or any gay relationship.

      And if you only think that true christians must support rules from Leviticus, then I think you should find out where Mitt stands on the whole stoning rape victims question.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Don

      facepalm – You can start at Romans 1:18 and pay close attention to verse 27. God bless.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      LOL – Romans – more BS from that self-proclaimed "apostle" Paul. Rubbish. You may as well follow Joseph Smith if you give any credence to Paul. But all religion is garbage anyway – it's just a matter of which BS is smellier.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Really tho

      Really tho, how is this even to any point anyone is saying here? Just to bring you up to speed we are talking about keeping Church and State apart. So lets stop straying from the point.

      September 6, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  3. DanW

    What about those who just keep God in their hearts and believe that is more appropriate than making a big public deal about it? This platform nonsense reminds me of people who question someone's patriotism because they don't wear a flag in their lapel or fly a flag in front of their house. Some people just walk the walk, silently and effectively.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @DanW
      I whoeheartedly agree.
      In my experience, those who keep their faith personal are those who are most comfortable with it.
      The religionists who condemn this and that from a fiery pulpit come off as terribly insecure.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  4. gunnde

    The letters and other writings of Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton ... all affirm Christianity and biblical precepts as essential in their lives and America's life. Do an Internet search and pull them up yourself before you buy into this author's assertions. Many of America's founding fathers were revolutionaries who sought sanctuary in Christian churches. They would not have met in churches or prayed there were they atheists or agnostics or even deists. To state as fact that these men and women were not Christians and that the foundations of America were not laid by a Christian majority is simply absurd and false. Of course they were largely Christian and motivated to revolt, because their Christian faith affirmed their revolt in their eyes. 200 years later, Martin Luther King similarly met in churches to launch and sustain his protest for integration. The black was pivotal to the passage of the civil rights legislation. In 2012, you may be able to rewrite history to state otherwise, as this author does, but that will never make it factually accurate.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Please give one single reference where Washington talked specifically about biblical principles and how important they were to him. One.

      I like you also ignore that the likes of Jefferson, Adams, and Paine were often openly hostile to christianity in their writings.

      Fail.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Tom

      How about Washington's Farewell Address?

      September 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Tom

      "Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. ...Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.... Who, that is a sincere friend to it [government], can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?"

      Washington's Farewell Address

      September 6, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  5. Eric

    The number of people who believe in God in this country is closer to 80-85% and falling fast, which is still comically high compared to the rest of the civilized world. The Dems should be smart and get out in front of the mass exodus from the tragic joke that is organized religion.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Ed

      You are right and the Dems should tell the truth that they consider all those that believe in God to be fools and idiots. They should do that today and we will see how well that works out.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Tom

      You are confusing the fact that 15% are not affiliated with a religion to say that those 15% do not believe in God. In fact, the studies show that less than 2% of the population are agnostic or atheist.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • DanW

      Ed, you are being silly. Most Dems don't feel that way and you know it.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  6. this guy

    What's the deeeeal with all these religious people?

    -Jerry Seinfeld

    September 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Henry

      They're loons.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  7. Ed

    I would agree with keeping God out of a party platform if the platform also excludes any reference to gays, abortion, race and gender. Let the platform only contain actual solutions to the major problems facing this nation. If they won't do that – then God has as much right to be in the platform as anything else. Probably even more so since a larger majority believe in God in this nation then anything else in the platform.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • this guy

      You can't equate god to all those things...those other issues are real.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  8. mendacitysux

    If God was worried about it maybe He would have sent a hurricane through their convention and not the GOP's.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Ed

      Just to let you know, the fact is that Tampa and the GOP convention were not hit by a hurricane.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Tom

      You know that Obama just had to change his venue tonight due to the weather, right? Right?

      Doh.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  9. Jonathan

    You really expect people with a different worldview to abide by your atheism? Wouldn't the first amendment give someone the freedom to talk about their worldviews and express their thoughts about God? As I read these comments, it seems like there are many closeminded people who want to control everyone else's thoughts and put down others instead of having intelligent discussion. Most atheists I've met seem more open-minded, respectful, and intellignet than the evidence compiled here.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Dino

      Atheism is just another religion based on religion. These guys are really as dumb as satanists. So how are atheists gonna prove anything either? That's right. They're not. They're just here to say nah nah na boo boo. Kinda like a 5 yr old.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • fintastic

      @dum dum dino...

      Atheist is very simply no belief in god

      September 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  10. Veritas Lavinga

    The United States of America wouldn't exist if it wasn't for God's direct involvement in the foundation of this nation. The separation of Church & State applies more to church, it actually meant the state needed to stop interfering in the church, not the other way around. There needs to be prayers in schools. Ten commandments in court houses. Intelligent design needs to be more established in universities, colleges, and schools.

    Every nation that has thrown out God has faced financial ruin & eventual total collapse, the United States is next. Every nation that has thrown Israel under the bus eventually faced financial ruin & collapse. The United States is next.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Horus

      Your post is completely false....

      September 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Dino

      Yes. Lets attribute everything we do not understand to a magic man in the clouds. That makes perfect sense. Ah buka buka!

      September 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Huebert

      "There needs to be prayers in schools. Ten commandments in court houses. Intelligent design needs to be more established in universities, colleges, and schools."

      A student can pray in school, you just can't have school led prayer.

      I will accept the ten commandments in courthouses the day you accept sharia law in courthouses.

      Creationism and Intelligent Design are not scientific theories, and therefore have no place in a science class, and the supreme court agrees with this opinion. Creationism might have a place in a comparative religion class.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • sam

      That's quite some fantasy world you've invented.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • dick0447

      "it actually meant the state needed to stop interfering in the church, not the other way around". Where on earth did you find that?

      September 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Ben Jordan

      Thta is one of the most ridiculous things i have ever heard anyone say... You cant revise history to fit your myopic world view. Separation of church and state was meant to be applied to government AND churches... so gov couldnt destroy churches and churches couldnt persecute others using the power of government. And EVERY nation in history has faced financial ruin and eventual collapse. Rome was a christian nation when it fell... and the theocracies of the middle east are not doing well, in case you hadnt noticed.

      OH and intelligent design in college?? if it was taught in a philosophy class, sure... but it is NOT science...

      September 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • W. R. Martin

      Horus, that person's post wasn't even wrong!

      God. Which one?
      Did something. What, exactly did it/he/she do?
      Germany still exists and if I remember my History classes some of them were not very nice to the Israelites in their midst.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Potrzebie

      You sir, are a Dunce! D-U-N-C-E!

      September 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  11. Dino

    Yes keep God off the platform. He's getting old and could fall leaving his son Jesus the enormous responsibility of caring for an aging elderly parent. This could lead to a delayed second coming and no true christian wants that now do they?

    September 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  12. Reality

    "Professor" Stevie P being supposedly so knowledgeable about god and the Exodus should do some reading to enlighten himself and his students about god, Abraham, Moses and the Exodus. As a starting point:

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

    prob•a•bly

    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

    (One wonders why Stevie P still teaches religion courses at Boston U considering his obvious lack of keeping up with the subject.)

    September 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Reality

      And I just noticed that Stevie P thu-mped Matthew 6: 5-6, (hypocritical prayer). Had Stevie P did some research like any professor worth his salary, he would have found that said passage does not meet rigorous historical review i.e. a single attestation found no where else in the NT. See also Professor Gerd Ludemann's conclusions in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 145-147 and pp. 694-695. "In no way did Jesus speak these words......................."

      September 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  13. JH

    The Bible says that one day every man and women will stand before God and give an account of their lives, if your name is not written in the book of life you will go to Hell, the bible is very clear in that. So repent of your sins and ask Jesus into your life. Soon it will not matter if your Republican or Democrat, what will matter is if you have lived your life for Christ.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Huebert

      Your threats have no effect on those who don't follow your religion. I can no more be scared by the threat of hell than I can be scared by the threat of ghost.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Rick

      And all the other holy books say something different......

      September 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Henry

      It amazes that people believe the writings in a book that is thousands of years old with unknown authors. It's not like you can gather up the writers and invite to interviews to quiz 'em a bit to determine credibility.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Horus

      Yes...the bible has a lot of absurd nonsense written by men with far less understanding of the natural world.....

      September 6, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • sam

      The bible's not clear on anything, ever. Plus, threatening people to turn or burn is the most ridiculous way to get followers. Religions should try to remember that.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  14. Pritch

    I am quite certain that very recently the Dems were touting how divided the Republican party was. Where are all those folks now?

    September 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Potrzebie

      No they weren't.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  15. Tom

    That's right. God never left the party. The party left God.

    If there is a separation between an individual or group and God, it wasn't because God left.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  16. Striker

    GOD has a place in everything that we do. You will understand one day!

    September 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      Really?

      When will he show up in your life, and will he tell you to stop annoying people?

      September 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Rick

      Says the member of the Christian arm of the Taliban.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Kay

      Non-believers will get the message when they take that last breath.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • linda Operle

      MAYBE IN WHAT YOU DO. I HAVE MY OWN MORAL COMPASS BASED ON REALITY, FAIRNESS, JUSTICE AND THE ABILITY TO APPLY REASON AND COMMON SENSE TO MY LIFE AND DEEDS. FOR THAT I DON'T NEED A FANTASY FIGURE TO POINT THE WAY. IF WE CANNOT APPLY THESE QUALITIES TO OUR LIVES UNLESS WE INVOKE GOD AS THE PROVIDER THEN WE ARE MERELY PUPPETS DOING WHAT AN ANCIENT BOOK SAYS WE SHOULD DO.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Larry L

      Since Neanderthals man has created gods to provide them with some sense of security. Each of the hundreds of religions were convinced their mythology was absolutely the real deal – and everybody else was worshiping a false god. Most of the various gods performed miricles, many of the gods came from humble beginnings, and almost all of them offered a mixture of smiting and love... depending on how well you play the game. The one thing they all have in common is none of the gods ever make an actual appearance – it's always some "inner voice" that guides believers. At least the native Americans mixed some peyote with the religion where you could actually "see" the spirit world. The world appears to be evolving away from the need for mythological gods – as we gain a better understanding of our physical environment.

      America was created by deists and our founders never had any intention of infusing religion into our government. That's a myth created by Christians and like their religious beliefs, the myth isn't founded in logic or reality.

      September 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  17. Atheist Tin Hat

    "Is bearing a semi-automatic weapon really the answer to "What would Jesus do?""

    Lacking semi-automatic weapons, Jesus' disciples carried swords.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Rick

      Untrue, maybe his later followers did, but his disciples certainly did not. Please do not attribute the folly of ones followers to the one whose vision has been corrupted.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Tom

      @Rick:

      "Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear." from the passion, according to John.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "He (Jesus) said to them, 'But now if you have a purse, take it and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one."
      – Luke 22:36

      September 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  18. kamanakapu

    The first and most ancient questions asked of the indian religionist's millions of years ago were (a) why can't your god be seen? (b) why can't your god be heard? and, (c) why can't your god be touched? They could not answer back than and still cannot answer today, millions of years later.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Dino

      Millions of years?

      September 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Old Guy

      A further question is a god was needed to create us, then what and how was a god created out of nothing.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  19. Asturiano

    GOD and religion have no place in politics or political platforms.

    September 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • zap

      Well, duh.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Rick

      Correct. Unless you are a party, like the Taliban, whose primary purpose is the instillation of a religious government God and religion have no place in politics. Zero, none, ZIP!!

      September 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Truth

      Correct. Unless you are a party, like the Taliban, Islam, Christianity or Judaism, of whose primary purpose is the instillation of a religious government, aka a Theocracy. God and religion have no place in politics, but many ignorant people keep trying to shove the square peg in the round hole.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  20. Amen

    What planet are you living in? We all else live in the US of A! You get 90% of the population by its balls when you appear on stage with god on your side – Perhaps with a smirk on his face with an arm slung over the candidate's heavily padded shoulder. GOD!!! 🙂

    September 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Potrzebie

      Huh?

      September 6, 2012 at 3:37 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.