God On The Campaign Trail

Author Brian Kaylor Discusses The Use – And Misuse – Of Religious Rhetoric In Presidential Elections

Brian T. Kaylor is assistant professor of communication studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. In his new book, Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, Kaylor examines the escalating use of religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns since 1976. Kaylor discussed the book recently with Church & State.

Q. What got you interested in the study of religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns?

A. As I entered graduate school at the University of Missouri, I quickly merged my two primary interests. Growing up in the state capital of Missouri, I had actively followed politics at the state and national levels – even volunteering on various campaigns before I could vote.

At the same time, faith and church grew increasingly important in my life. In fact, I served as a Baptist pastor at the time I started my graduate studies. Although the topics of religion and politics (especially when combined) are often viewed as taboo topics for polite dinner conversation, both are critically important and the intersection of the two areas should not be ignored.

Q. Your book examines campaigns from 1976-2008. Yet clearly religion has played a factor in American elections for a long time. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was portrayed as an infidel by clergy in New England. Yet the trend of candidates openly wearing faiths on their sleeves seems more recent. When do you believe this started? Was the ’76 Ford-Carter race somehow pivotal?

A. Religion in presidential campaigns is clearly not a new phenomenon – popping up in various campaigns like the attacks on Jefferson, questions about the alleged Unitarian beliefs of various candidates (such as John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Taft), and attacks on the Catholicism of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy. However, despite these sporadic cases, the period of 1976 through the present represents a substantial break from campaigns in the decades prior to the rise of the born-again Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter. Carter’s religious-political rhetoric contrasted dramatically from previous successful candidates and resonated well with Americans looking for something different in the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate and other societal changes.

Following his election, other politicians recognized the need for openly proclaiming their personal religious piety in order to find political salvation in the voting booth. This shift is best illustrated by the realization that only four of the first 38 presidents (George Washington through Gerald Ford) are considered evangelicals, but five of the last six have been (with George H. W. Bush the lone exception). We are not necessarily a more religious nation, but a different kind of religious nation; we are an evangelical society (and no longer a mainline Protestant one) where many Americans expect their leaders to wear their religion on their sleeves.

Q. Culturally, the United States shares much in common with Western Europe and Canada. Yet we don’t hear a high level of talk about religion in their campaigns. What is it about America that makes us different in this regard?

A. The growth of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. appears to be at the heart of the rise of confessional politics. It is not that evangelicals are more religious than other Christians, but that they talk about their faith much more. The rhetorical expectations are so high that if one does not walk the aisle and publicly testify about one’s personal faith, then one’s faith will likely be questioned. As evangelicals grew in the decades and eventually became our nation’s largest religious group in the middle of the 20th century, they also changed societal expectations.

Many factors helped create this climate in the U.S., including the rugged individualism of frontier Americans (which complemented the individualist focus of the evangelical tradition), the democratic ethos of America (which sparked the spread of democratic churches often found in evangelical denominations), and the separation of church and state (which granted religious freedoms to evangelical minority groups and helped increase religious faithfulness in the U.S. in general).

Q. The possibility always exists that some candidates might be using religion because they think it’s what voters want to hear. How are voters to judge a candidate’s sincerity?

A. The issue of sincerity haunts this work since voters cannot judge the hearts and souls of candidates. Thus, the religious test for office today is a rhetorical one. That is, the candidate talking the most about religion in the general campaign won in every cycle from 1976-2008. That does not mean the most religious candidate, but the one who talked about God and quoted scriptures the most.

The problem is that many Americans seem to judge a candidate’s sincerity based on the letter (an ‘R’ or a ‘D’) that follows the candidate’s name. Conservatives excuse Ronald Reagan for rarely attending church but question Barack Obama’s faith because of his lackluster attendance record. And liberals reverse the equation, attacking Reagan and defending Obama. Candidates in both major parties are attacked by partisans on the other side for not living out the candidate’s espoused Christian beliefs – but only on topics where the partisans already disagree with the politician under attack.

Q. John F. Kennedy was our first Catholic president. We haven’t had another one since then, but most voters today say they’re comfortable supporting Catholic candidates. But how far does tolerance extend? Are we ready for a Mormon president? Or an atheist president?

A. When Kennedy ran for president, Americans divided on partisan lines based in large part on denominational differences. Today, the denominational ties are less significant politically as conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics work together more politically than they do with their liberal coreligionists – and likewise for liberals. Thus, John F. Kerry actually lost the Catholic vote to George W. Bush in 2004.

The lack of tolerance today, then, is not a purely denominational one, but more about the candidates’ religious personas. While Kennedy had to prove he was not too Catholic to be president, Kerry had to prove he was Catholic enough (or religious enough) to be president. An evangelical Catholic could find a more receptive citizenry than did Kerry, who shied away from publicly baring his soul.

In particular, atheists and Muslims are the chief disenfranchised classes in our age of confessional politics that favors candidates with an evangelical flair. The Mormon question is more difficult. In 2008, Mitt Romney sought to prove that he, too, loved Jesus and therefore should be considered as passing the religious test. Romney’s flip-flop on abortion and now his health care record may doom him more than his religious faith. But, it remains likely any Mormon will face a higher – if not insurmountable – hurdle than candidates from evangelical Protestant traditions.

Q. We are a secular democracy where people of many faiths (and none) live side by side. In light of that, how have modern candidates attempted to balance their faith with the public good?

A. Although few recent presidential candidates have refused to say much about their personal faith, those who took that approach failed to find much success (such as Bill Bradley and Fred Thompson). Most candidates have instead infused God-talk into their campaign messages, but generally in ways that focus on the personal – like testifying about their personal faith to prove they can be trusted and liked. Many also tie these comments to their commitment to make the nation and world better – such as by invoking the “Golden Rule” to justify their policies. Candidates seem to try and avoid being drawn into controversial religious discussions, much like they often try to avoid being overly controversial about any topic.

Q. Some scholars have posited the existence of an American “civil religion” – a type of generalized faith that most Americans can rally around. Is there such a thing? If so, how does it manifest itself during campaigns?

A. Although the concept of “civil religion” helped explain American society in the past, the faith that Americans rally around slowly has evolved from a generic faith to a specific one. We still have the rhetorical residue of civil religion, but many now redefine such sentiments to justify a sectarian agenda. Instead of uniting us, this faith often divides us. Civil religious phrases like “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” are increasingly used by many Americans to mean their specific Christian faith. This rhetoric deviates from the rhetoric of JFK, who offered near-textbook examples of civil religion. In particular, candidates of both parties continue to chip away at and attack the concept of separation of church and state, which was a key component of civil religion in Kennedy’s time.

Q. Is all of this “God talk” in presidential campaigns good for our democracy?

A. An individual candidate talking about their personal religious beliefs is not inherently problematic. However, when we create a system where candidates have to talk about their faith in order to have a chance to win, then there are serious democratic implications. This is precisely the environment confronting our would-be leaders over the past three decades.

First, this confessional age has created a de facto religious test for office. Although Article VI of the U.S. Constitution has not technically been rewritten, it has been in practice as one must profess to be a Christian in order to have a prayer of moving into the Oval Office. This system has also resulted in disenfranchised classes who cannot mount credible runs, and in privileged classes – primarily evangelical Christians – who receive preferential treatment from our nation’s leaders.

Finally, this confessional political system also results in restricted political dialogue as theological matters push aside important policy questions. We have created a dangerous system where candidates like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy should not even waste their time in running.