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Obama and Huckabee Embrace Religion, Win Iowa

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 the Iowa Caucuses.

The victories by Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses on Thursday make one thing clear: in America’s heartland, the God strategy works. Recent history suggests it won’t stop there.

In this approach presidential candidates make their religious faith demonstrably public and wield it as a campaign centerpiece. Out is a traditional wall of separation; in is a “bridge between church and state” that George W. Bush—who used the God strategy to perfection in 2000 and 2004—offered early in his presidency.

This is not how it’s always been.

God and religion have always been part of U.S. politics, but our analysis of more than 15,000 public communications by political leaders from Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932—the beginning of the modern presidency—through six years of George W. Bush’s administration revealed a striking increase in public religiosity beginning in 1980.

That year, in response to Jimmy Carter’s personal faith story, Ronald Reagan ran a campaign shot through with religious themes and calculated visits with newly mobilized evangelicals. This approach was so successful that subsequent presidents have followed suit. The result is that presidential candidates today use religion as a political weapon: to organize and explain one’s values, to justify policy plans, and—most importantly—to divide the electorate into allies and enemies.

The victors in Iowa on Thursday have used the God strategy to a degree rarely seen in modern history.

Obama’s public embrace of faith began in 2006 with a keynote address at Sojourners magazine’s Call to Renewal conference. Syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne suggested the speech “may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.” Later in 2006 Obama spoke at an AIDS summit hosted by Rick Warren—a conservative who is one of the most prominent evangelicals in the world.

Since then, Obama’s religious politics have only grown. He often begins speeches—including his address in February 2007 in which he announced his intention to seek the presidency—by giving “all praise and honor to God,” and regularly cites the biblical story of Joshua. In Iowa, Obama had a faith steering committee and his campaign held forums across the state titled “What’s faith got to do with it?”

Still, he lagged behind Huckabee in his religious politics.

Early on, the little-known ordained Southern Baptist minister compared himself to Biblical underdogs David and other Old Testament prophets. He wowed Christian conservatives at the Family Research Council’s Values Voters Summit in October, saying “I think it’s important that the language of Zion is a mother tongue, and not a recently acquired second language.” Huckabee began to surge in Iowa polls not long after, a rise he attributed to divine intervention.

Huckabee sealed his ascendancy by airing perhaps the most religious ads in U.S. presidential history. A signature spot featured Huckabee saying “Faith doesn’t just influence me; it really defines me,” as the words “Christian leader” flashed across the screen. In another ad, Huckabee asked viewers to remember the real meaning of the holiday season: “the celebration of the birth of Christ.” When this message stirred up controversy, Huckabee adroitly painted himself as the target of secularists.

Obama and Huckabee: Two presidential candidates, two political parties, one approach—and the same result.

The question now is whether this strategy has legs beyond Iowa. As the candidates turn their attention to New Hampshire, they’ll find voters who are likely to be a bit more cautious about too intimate a relationship between religion and politics. But soon thereafter comes South Carolina, where faith runs wide and deep. Indeed, Obama’s campaign had a “40 days of Faith and Family” focus there in autumn.

One thing is for sure: we’re light years and a religious political revolution from John F. Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960, when he famously declared that “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.”

That was a winning message then. Today it would be a voice in the wilderness—on both sides of the partisan aisle.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Lauren Smith wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThey 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 the Iowa Caucuses. … […]

  2. […] Rebecca placed an interesting blog post on Obama and Huckabee Embrace Religion, Win IowaHere’s a brief overview […]

  3. yogi-one

    Another one of the many ways that America has degenerated.

    America has gone from a debt-free, freedom-championing manufacturing and technological powerhouse to a nation of dumbed-down Theocrats, where the citizens to not know, and do not care to know about the Constitution, are mired in unresolvable debt, have outsourced all their skills, and limp along behind in the sciences and technology as our kids graduate from our high school without knowing how to use a map, multiply numbers, or think analytically.

    We have become a violent, plundering society dedicated to destroying the planet with pollution, and waging a war on science and any kind of enlightened thought we can find.

    And evangelical Christianity, has led the way and promoted the worst forms ignorance, and called it “family values”. Ugh.

    Hucklebee is the quintessential evangelical, hunting and claiming that his political rivals will meet the same fate as the animals he kills, and who brags about having executed 16 people during his term as governor.

    The marriage of Christianity and violence has a long and ugly history.

    I can’t believe Americans are actually choosing to throw away freedom and democracy and replace it with religious repression. But that is exactly what we see today. It’s like the opposite of the American Revolution, the peeling back of every principle the Patriots fought to give to us.

    The only possible outcome is war and economic depression if we go down that road.

  4. […] race42008.com wrote an interesting post today on Obama and Huckabee Embrace Religion, Win IowaHere’s a quick excerptTo learn more about the book check out their handy … The victories by Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses on Thursday make one […]

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