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The Christmas Story, Circa 2008: Presidential Religious Politics

9780195326413.jpgDavid 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 presidential religious politics.

Mike Huckabee feels our pain.

In his new campaign ad, Huckabee assures us that he too is tired of all the no-holds-barred politicking. He’d rather relax, don his red sweater, carefully position himself in front of a bookshelf that bears an uncanny resemblance to a glowing white cross, and focus on the real meaning of the holiday season: “the celebration of the birth of Christ.” No politics here, just old time religion.

Huckabee appears so earnest that you want to believe him. But then reality sets in. This is the same man who previously ran an ad touting himself as a “Christian leader,” who ducked and dodged when asked if he thought Mormonism was a religion or a cult, who eventually affirmed that Mormonism was indeed a religion — the one that “believe[s] that Jesus and the devil are brothers,” right? The same man who suggested that his rise in the polls is due to divine intervention: “There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people.”

Huckabee’s pseudo-apolitical approach is actually a stunningly brazen example of the God strategy — the use of a demonstrably public form of religion for political gain. This technique is on full display in 2008, but first went mainstream nearly three decades ago, when Ronald Reagan in 1980 realized the political value of appealing to newly mobilized conservative Christians.

If you’re skeptical that Reagan really changed things, let’s take a look at the numbers.

On average, presidents from Franklin Roosevelt — commonly viewed as the beginning of the modern presidency — to Jimmy Carter mentioned God in less than half of their major addresses. In contrast, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush (through year six of his tenure) all did so in more than 90% of theirs. Further, the total number of references to God in the average presidential speech 1981-early 2007 was an astounding 120% higher than the average speech 1933-1980. References to broader religious terms, such as faith, pray, sacred, worship, and crusade increased by 60%.

To gain perspective, here’s a graph that shows how much presidential religious rhetoric increased in four important contexts, from FDR through six years of GW Bush:

1. when the nation goes to war (compared to times of peace)
2. whether presidents are Republican (compared to Democratic)
3. whether a president faces re-election (compared to not)
4. whether the president served 1981 or later (compared to 1932 to 1980)


Those lines on the far right? They show that the past four U.S. presidents — not to mention today’s presidential candidates — have developed a new religious politics unlike anything we’ve seen in modern history.

Here’s one more example of this God and country cocktail.

Mitt Romney in his “Faith in America” speech on Dec. 6 made one thing crystal clear: he believes liberty is granted by God. Romney said that “Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God” and assured 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 sounded familiar, it’s because they are. Presidents beginning with Reagan have made them to a degree unprecedented in modern history. To declare that liberty (or freedom, a term used interchangeably by presidents) is a gift from God is to position oneself as a prophet: that is, the wording suggests that one has knowledge of divine wishes and desires.

But the prophetic approach is not the only way to link God and liberty/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, but no more. Here’s a graph containing all linkages of freedom or liberty with God in presidential speeches from FDR’s 1933 inauguration through George W. Bush’s first six years in office, with the linkages classified as either petitioner or prophetic in speaking style:


This time, those lines on the far right show that the past four U.S. presidents often acted as if they were spokesmen for God when linking America with the values of freedom and liberty. Romney was merely — but dangerously — talking that talk in his speech.

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.

But in the 2008 campaign, there indeed is a de facto religious test for public office: are the candidates willing to make their faith demonstrably public? If they aren’t, they fail. And Huckabee’s new Christmas ad — which the campaign has titled “What Really Matters” — takes that test one step further, suggesting not just a religious test, but a Christian test.

What our celebration of Christmas should do is what all religious holidays should do: remind Americans of the importance of freedom and liberty to worship or not worship as one pleases. That ideal is a centerpiece of our great national experiment in democracy. That’s what someone running for the nation’s highest office should be touting, not a sectarian faith.

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