David Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. Kevin Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. They are authors of the The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. To learn more about the book check out their handy website here. In the article below Domke and Coe reflect on Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech.
Mitt Romney’s much-discussed speech about “Faith in America” made one thing crystal clear: he believes liberty is a gift from God.
Romney said that “Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God” and assured his audience that, as president, he “will not separate us from ‘the God who gave us liberty.’” He also referenced the Declaration of Independence’s claim that people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them liberty, and concluded by giving “thanks to the divine ‘Author of liberty.’”
If these claims sound familiar, it’s because they are. Presidents since Ronald Reagan have made them to a degree unprecedented in modern history.
To state that liberty is a gift from God is what might be called a prophetic claim: it assumes knowledge of God’s wishes and desires. The familiar “endowed by their Creator” statement in the Declaration of Independence is such a claim.
But the prophetic approach is not the only way to link God and freedom. Pre-Reagan modern presidents more often spoke as petitioners, asking for God’s blessing or guidance. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, in his famous “Four Freedoms” address in 1941, used this approach when he spoke of the nation’s “faith in freedom under the guidance of God.”
This petitioner style used to be the norm in presidential politics. That changed with Reagan, and has yet to change back. The prophetic posture has become the dominant mode of linking God and freedom. Consider some numbers.
We analyzed the nearly 360 major presidential addresses given by presidents Franklin Roosevelt—typically thought of as the first modern president—through George W. Bush to see how presidents have linked invocations of God with claims about freedom and liberty. What we found was striking.
From 1933 to 1980, presidents used a petitioner speaking style 86% of the time when connecting God with freedom and liberty. A complete reversal occurred beginning with the Reagan presidency: from 1981 through early 2007, presidents used a prophetic speaking style 68% of the time when linking freedom and liberty with God.
Of the past four presidents, Reagan and the younger Bush were especially prone to use the prophetic voice: nearly a quarter of their major addresses, and fully half of their Inaugural and State of the Union addresses, contained such a claim.
Romney’s heavy dose of the prophetic posture—and its attendant certitude about God’s desires—might well help him appeal to Christians conservatives, who make up a crucial bloc in the Republican coalition. But in a campaign that is beginning to take on the feel of “a new American holy war,” as Newsweek editor Jon Meacham put it, one can’t help but long for the days when presidents and presidential hopefuls displayed just a touch more humility.