The God Strategy In American Politics

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Lots of establishment types like to say there’s nothing new
under the sun with respect to religion and politics. In
December 2004, White House speechwriter Michael Gerson
told journalists that George W. Bush’s religious rhetoric
was the same old thing we’d always seen: “I don’t believe
that any of this is a departure from American history.”
Three months earlier Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of
the ecumenical journal First Things, said of Bush’s religious
politics: “There is nothing that Bush has said about divine
purpose, destiny and accountability that Abraham Lincoln
did not say. This is as American as apple pie.”
Both of these men were wrong, and their position is dangerous.
How do we know? We ran the numbers. Enough
speculation, anecdote, uninformed opinion, and partisan
posturing. It’s time for the hard facts.
In the late 1970s, conservative Christians began to
mobilize politically through organizations such as the
Moral Majority. Early on, this newly powerful voting bloc
tried to like Jimmy Carter who, after all, was an openly
“born again” Christian. But Carter disappointed the political
faithful with his insufficiently aggressive foreign policy,
support for Roe v. Wade, and general unwillingness to
make his faith demonstrably public.
Ronald Reagan took a very different approach: he used
the God strategy. By making religion a centerpiece of his
presidency, he clearly signaled his support for Christian
conservatives. Presidents since Reagan have followed suit.
The result is that American politics today is defined by a
calculated, demonstrably public religiosity unlike anything
in modern history.
If one looks at nearly 360 major speeches that presidents
from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush have given, the
increase in religiosity is astounding. The average president
from FDR to Carter mentioned God in a minority of his
speeches, doing so about 47% of the time. Reagan, in contrast,
mentioned God in 96% of his speeches. George H.
W. Bush did so 91% of the time, Clinton 93%, and the
current Bush (through year six) was at 94%. Further, the
total number of references to God in the average presidential
speech since 1981 is 120% higher than the average
speech from 1933-1980. References to broader religious
terms, such as faith, pray, sacred, worship, crusade, and
dozens of others increased by 60%.
Recent presidents have also made far more “pilgrimages”
to speak to audiences of faith. From FDR through Carter,
presidents averaged 5.3 public remarks before overtly religious
organizations in a four-year term. Beginning with Reagan
through six years of Bush, this average more than
tripled to 16.6 per term. For example, since 1981 GOP
presidents have spoken 13 times to the National Association
of Evangelicals or the National Religious Broadcasters Association,
four times to the Knights of Columbus, and four
times to the Southern Baptist Convention. Clinton never
spoke to these conservative organizations; instead, he spoke
in churches, again and again. From FDR through Carter,
presidents delivered public remarks in churches an average
of twice per four-year term. In contrast, Clinton spoke in
churches 28 times during two terms in the White House—
10 more visits than Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. combined.
Wherever we
looked, whatever
we measured—in
thousands of public
across eight
decades—we found
the same pattern.
Presidents and presidential
since Reagan have
been afraid to be
seen as the apostate
in the room. They
put religion front
and center to show
they’re not.
This convergence
of faith and politics is exactly what the nation’s Founders
sought to avoid. Many of these men were deeply religious,
but they were only an ocean removed from the religious
strife that had plagued Europe for centuries. With these
experiences in mind, they created a Constitution that
doesn’t contain a single mention of God and prohibits religious
tests for those seeking office.
Their vision is at serious risk today. History has shown
with tragic consistency that an intimate relationship
between religion and politics does irreparable damage to
both—from the crusades of medieval times to the terrorism
of modern times. Constant use of the God strategy by
political leaders encourages just such a relationship. When
George W. Bush justifies the Iraq War by saying that liberty
is “God’s gift to humanity” and that America’s “calling” is
to deliver that gift to the Iraqi people, he is offering something
quite like a divine vision for U.S. foreign policy.
It is precisely this conflation of abstract claims about
God with the concrete goals of the state that led esteemed
religion scholar R. Scott Appleby to call the administration’s
rhetoric about spreading freedom and liberty “a theological
version of Manifest Destiny.” At a minimum, this
approach risks repeating the errors of the original manifest
destiny: unduly emphasizing the norms and values of
white, conservative Protestants at the expense of those
who will not or cannot conform.
Just as important, pairing religious doctrine with public
policy encourages citizens to conclude that the U.S. government’s
actions are the will of God—or at least congruent with
such wishes—and therefore beyond question. Dogmatic
political voices and hints of divinely inspired policy are not
the ingredients of a robust republic; they’re the recipe for
hubris, jingoism, and the decline of democracy. These are
disquieting possibilities, but the words of our political leaders
in recent decades have moved America toward them.
Both the Gospel of John and the record of evils past teach
one thing: in the beginning, always, are words.
To grasp what is at stake, we might recall John
Kennedy’s address before conservative Protestant clergy in
September 1960. Facing substantial prejudice because of
his Catholicism, Kennedy declared: “I believe in an America
where the separation of church and state is absolute…I
believe in a president whose views on religion are his own
private affair.” Such a presidency was essential, Kennedy
added, because “Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow
it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious
society is ripped apart.”
At this rate we’ll soon be there. Tragically, we may
already be.

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