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 look at Romney’s upcoming address to the nation.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will address the nation Thursday night about his Mormon faith and how it relates to his candidacy and policy goals. Many are calling it his “JFK moment” because the context recalls John F. Kennedy’s storied 1960 address to a group of conservative Protestant clergy in Houston.
In that speech, Kennedy declared: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute” and “I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.”
Romney’s speech will not sound these themes. To do so would be political suicide because Romney faces a fundamentally different political environment than did Kennedy.
In recent decades, conservative Christian evangelicals and Catholics—the two groups at odds in the 1960 election—have found common ground. These voters increasingly seek candidates whose faith substantially informs their politics.
The turning point came in 1980. Four years earlier Jimmy Carter made his Southern Baptist faith a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Once in the White House, however, Carter’s strict separation of church and state and moderate policies—the JFK approach—disappointed the growing religious conservative movement.
Ronald Reagan responded with we call the God strategy: a mixture of political voice and agenda that is primarily secularized, while—in the words of Doug Wead, who in 1988 headed George H. W. Bush’s campaign outreach to evangelicals—finding opportunities to “signal” sympathy for religious conservatives’ views. This tactic was stunningly successful in 1980, and subsequent presidents have followed suit.
How do we know? We ran the numbers.
Our analysis of thousands of public communications across eight decades shows that American politics today is defined by a calculated, demonstrably public religiosity unlike anything in modern history. Consider just one example.
On average, presidents from Franklin Roosevelt—the beginning of the modern presidency—to Carter mentioned God in less than half of their major addresses. In contrast, Reagan, Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush (through year six) all did so in more than 90% of theirs. Further, the total number of references to God in the average presidential speech since 1981 was an astounding 120% higher than the average speech from 1933-1980. References to broader religious terms, such as faith, pray, sacred, worship, and crusade increased by 60%.
Wherever we look, whatever we measure—from presidential speeches to proclamations, party platforms, even celebrations of Christmas—our analysis points to the same conclusion: Politicians today face a religious politics far beyond anything Kennedy knew.
In the coming months, we’ll blog regularly about these changes, how they’re affecting the 2008 campaign, how the candidates are responding—and what all of this means for the American experiment in democracy.