19 April 2012


During the windup to the 2008 election in 2007, George Mason University's History News Network reported:

The 2008 presidential campaign is striking in that it seems to be nearly as much about religion as politics.

Mitt Romney’s much-discussed speech on faith and politics is just one recent example of a trend that has stretched throughout the campaign and across both sides of the partisan aisle. During the seemingly endless string of debates, candidates have pondered what Jesus would do about capital punishment, raised their hands to deny evolution, considered whether America is a Christian nation, described the power of prayer, and eagerly affirmed that yes, the Bible is indeed the word of God.

(Note: all text in this shade of blue in this post designates direct quotes from the article.)

Despite a Pew Research Center study showing that a growing number of Americans  say there is too much religious talk in politics, not much has changed in four years. Four of the recent Republican candidates claimed that God told them to run for office: Bachmann, Cain, Perry, Santorum. Apparently, God didn't tell them they would win the nomination. At times, Santorum sounded more like he was running for Pope than for President.

Republicans seem to wear religion on their sleeves more than their Democratic counterparts, but the Dems aren't blameless. Clinton made speeches in churches more often than Reagan and the two Bushes combined, although those Republicans spoke more often in front of large religious organizations.

In 1960, Kennedy found it necessary to make a speech assuring the American public that he believed firmly in the separation of church and state and, therefore, would not allow his religion to interfere with his duties as president. This is the speech that Santorum claimed made him want to throw up.

What happened between 1960 and today? When did this change? 

According to the History News Network:

...It all began on July 17, 1980.

That evening, Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for president. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, newly mobilized through organizations such as the Moral Majority, had found their man.

For the previous four years this constituency had tried to like Jimmy Carter who, after all, was an openly “born again” Christian. But Carter had disappointed the political faithful with his insufficiently aggressive foreign policy, support for Roe v. Wade, and general unwillingness to make his faith demonstrably public. Indeed, Carter in his nomination acceptance addresses in 1976 and 1980 made no mention of God whatsoever.

...Approaching the end of his 1980 acceptance speech, Reagan departed from his prepared remarks: “I have thought of something that is not part of my speech and I’m worried over whether I should do it.” He paused, then continued:

“Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity.”

Reagan went on, “I’ll confess that”—and here his voice faltered momentarily—“I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest.” A long pause ensued, followed by this: “I’m more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?” The entire hall went silent, heads bowed. He then concluded with words uncommon at the time: “God bless America.”

How do we know that this moment marked a turning point? We ran the numbers.

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%...

...This new age is one that many past presidents would hardly recognize. One can’t help but wonder what would become of a candidate today who, like John Kennedy in 1960, “believe[s] in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.”

You may also find interesting:
The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America by Coe and Demke
Amazon.com's description of the book:
This volume offers a timely and dynamic study of the rise of religion in American politics, examining the public messages of political leaders over the past seventy-five years. The authors show that U.S. politics today is defined by a calculated, deliberate, and partisan use of faith that is unprecedented in modern politics. Beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, America has seen a no-holds-barred religious politics that seeks to attract voters, identify and attack enemies, and solidify power. Domke and Coe identify a set of religious signals sent by both Republicans and Democrats in speeches, party platforms, proclamations, visits to audiences of faith, and even celebrations of Christmas. The updated edition of this ground-breaking book includes a new preface, an updated analysis of the last Bush administration, as well as a new final chapter on the Jeremiah Wright controversy, the candidacies of Mike Huckabee and Sarah Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama's victory.

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