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, to read more posts by them click here. In the article below Domke and Coe look ahead to the South Carolina primaries.
From the Motor City in Michigan to Sin City in Nevada, the 2008 presidential campaign is going national. But with all respect to voters in these states, the road to the White House—and for American politics generally—in the next few weeks goes through South Carolina. That’s because the Palmetto state is ground zero in today’s religious politics.
Presidential candidates in both parties these days commonly adopt what we call the “God strategy.” In this approach, politicians make their religious faith demonstrably public and wield it as a campaign centerpiece—to organize and explain one’s values, to justify policy plans, and, most importantly, to divide the electorate into allies and enemies.
The God strategy’s tactics are tailor-made for South Carolina. On the Republican side, the state’s primary offers an electorate in which white evangelicals account for more than half of likely voters, according to a Pew Research Center poll. GOP candidates for months have been securing endorsements from religious leaders, and with this Saturday’s primary looming, candidates are making their final pitches.
None more boldly than Mike Huckabee, whose victory in the Iowa caucuses January 3 was fueled by evangelicals. Huckabee issued this salvo in Thursday night’s GOP debate in Myrtle Beach: “I’m not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it. I don’t try to impose that as a governor and I wouldn’t impose it as a president. But I certainly am going to practice it, unashamedly, whether I’m a president or whether I’m not a president.”
On the Democratic side, Barack Obama returns to the site of one of his campaign’s most controversial moments—when it included ex-gay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin as part of a “40 days of Faith and Family” focus. Obama is running ahead in recent state polls, propelled by his campaign success and the large contingent of African American voters in South Carolina.
If Obama and Huckabee win in South Carolina, it will be due in large part to the alacrity with which the two have mixed religion and politics. But it won’t occur without a significant public pushback, for the first time in this campaign.
First Freedom First, a joint project of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has launched a series of advertisements in South Carolina which trumpet religious freedom and tolerance. The ads feature actors Jack Klugman and James Whitmore encouraging citizens ask candidates what they will do to “defend the right of all citizens to worship…or not.”
First Freedom First declared this: “At a time when presidential candidates in both political parties are injecting religion into their campaigns at unprecedented levels, the new ads…are designed to remind candidates and voters that religion has a place in American life, but not as a political tool.”
The question now is whether such voices can be heard over the din of footsteps as candidates from both parties race to use religion for political gain.