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U of M Alumni Association: Playing the God card


Politics in America took a sharp turn 28 years ago when Ronald Reagan, during his acceptance speech for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, posed an unexpected question. “Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?” he asked the delegates in the packed arena and the millions of Americans in the television audience. Then he bowed his head before the stilled crowd.

David Domke (Ph.D. ’96 from the University of Minnesota), a journalism professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, opens his new book, “The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America” (Oxford University Press, 2008), with this scene in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. He and co-author Kevin Coe, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, proceed to explain what led to that moment and what has transpired since in American politics. Domke, who was raised Catholic and whose wife is a Presbyterian pastor, asserts that, while God has been a part of presidential politics since George Washington held office, the religious undercurrent in America had until 1980 existed without partisan application. In fact, he says, “From the span of time we look at, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt in ’32 through Jimmy Carter’s presidency in ’81, you’ve got five decades when there is an increasing secularization, a decreasing religiosity, in the presidency.”

But the roots of today’s religious politics reach back to before FDR, to the Scopes trial in 1925 when a public school teacher was convicted of teaching evolution. “Even though Christian fundamentalists won this legal battle, they lost in the broader court of public opinion because a lot of the media stars of the period made fun of them in news coverage,” Domke explains. “As a result, many fundamentalists withdrew and set up their own infrastructure—universities and media outlets, radio in particular, publishing houses, and film studios—so that when they did reemerge in the political arena in the 1970s and ’80s, they had all of this at their disposal.”

Domke is also author of the 2004 book “God Willing?: Political Fundamentalism in the White House,” the “War on Terror,” and the “Echoing Press.” He studied 15,000 public communications by U.S. presidents in researching “The God Strategy” and recently expounded on his new book for Minnesota.

Beginning with Reagan, the use of words like Providence, prayer, and blessing—what you call “God talk” and “faith talk”—spiked in presidential speeches and communications and has remained at high levels since. Why did that begin with Reagan?

In the 1970s, Christian fundamentalists and Christian evangelicals began to come off the political sidelines. They really hadn’t been that politically engaged for decades, but they began to be so because of concerns about the nation, concerns about family, concerns about Vietnam and Watergate. And so all of these reasons began to propel folks who thought that voting and political involvement were not really their place. They mobilized and got behind Jimmy Carter and helped to elect him in 1976.

But then a number of their leaders ultimately weren’t satisfied with the kind of policies that Carter pursued. It became apparent to both Republicans and Democrats that whichever party could woo these new voters would have a significant influx of voters and their coalition. But the Republicans realized that it’s not just about policies, it’s also about the ability to speak the kind of faith language of these voters. And Reagan was particularly attuned, or his handlers were particularly attuned to this dynamic, and they emphasized faith and religion and a certain set of policies and they ground those in religious imagery. So much so that Carter, who was clearly uncomfortable with talking about faith in the public arena, late in the 1980 campaign begins to talk about God quite a bit more as he realizes, “I’m getting beat at something that really is my territory; I’m the person of faith here.” But it was ultimately too late.

Why is it so terrible if politicians use religious language if many people do, in fact, vote based on their religious beliefs?

It’s not on its face necessarily terrible, because certainly many Americans do believe in God and speak in their own ways in religious terms. What happens in the political arena, though, is you begin first of all to exclude the millions of Americans who don’t understand this language or who don’t want to participate in it. All really good politicians in American history have been able to talk in ways that capture both people who are religious and those who are not. But when you speak heavily in religious terms, you exclude the many who don’t fit that.

And the second piece is that it turns every issue into a moral showdown where it’s very difficult to reach a set of compromise positions or to reach the kind of outcomes that are necessary in politics. Religion isn’t the domain of compromise, so when you begin to throw these absolutes onto issues—like God wants it this way, or this is what the Bible teaches us, or this is what my faith compels me to do—it becomes very difficult on the conservative side to find any common ground on something like abortion or on the progressive side to figure out ways in which we can address poverty. When absolutist claims become the province of politics, then you become polarized and nobody can talk to each other. And we’ve seen far too much of that in last several decades in America.

A long-held belief in America is that this is a “chosen nation.” Does that idea make the mixing of religion and politics acceptable?

The notion that we’re a divinely special nation, that God has always had special plans for us and has given us official position in the world to bring democracy and freedom to everybody, doesn’t just make it possible for religious politics to occur in the United States, it really almost makes it a necessary piece.

If you’re going to run for high office in this country, you have to convince everybody that you love this nation so, so much. And one of the ways that you show you love this country is by embracing certain ideas that are widespread in America, and one of those is this idea that the bravest men and women in the world are the troops in our military. So you always hear talk about our troops as if they’re just short of saints. Another way to do it is to tap into this idea that America is a special, chosen place, that we’ve been put here with a divine decree from the beginning and we’re going to be the deliverers of freedom.

All of this makes it essential for presidents and presidential candidates and other politicians to talk about God and country, to say “God bless America,” to invoke God, to talk about our “God-given responsibilities.” This makes it almost essential, if you’re running for high national office, to bring God into the equation.

You wrote that not until 2003 did the media give prolonged scrutiny to religion in politics. What responsibility do the media have in the successful use of religion as a political weapon? Are they to blame?

They certainly are to blame, partially. For a number of years, journalists had not scrutinized the ways in which politicians have accentuated faith and used it for political purposes—in large part because journalists thought that the public didn’t pay attention to some of these claims. Also, the reality is that journalists didn’t know how to ask questions about faith claims. How do you scrutinize a politician’s claim that God wants marriage to be between a man and a woman? It’s just not open to scrutiny the same way that you can examine someone’s immigration plan.

But what journalists have begun to do—and it really started with the Iraq War, as George Bush used so much God language after 9/11 and up to the war—is to see the broader magnitude of religious politics, that it has led to death and destruction around the world. There was a Newsweek cover on “Bush and God” in March 2003 that I think was a big starting point for this kind of scrutiny. And from there more journalists began to pay attention, political pundits began to pay attention, academics began to pay attention—and we were starting to produce material that gave systematic analysis to all of this.

Then, in 2004, faith became such a big deal in that election— Bush running essentially on faith and the war and John Kerry having such difficulty talking about faith. I think journalists grasped that now it’s not only going to matter for a war, it’s going to matter for a presidential election. Ever since then, Democrats have also responded in a significant way and are emphasizing faith. This has given journalists even more of an impetus to question it.

You wrote about Bill Clinton using the God strategy as masterfully as Reagan. How else have left-leaning politicians or groups used religion to appeal to voters?

Merging a progressive world view, a liberal world view, with a religious take on the world is part of American history. The abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement—both of these were grand, progressive causes that had religious dimensions to them.

But beginning in the last several decades, Reagan and the Republicans were more effective at finding a few key issues that became the centerpieces of American political discussion. And those issues were, of course, abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and school prayer and then, in the last decade, same-sex relationships and now stem-cell research. Those issues that revolve around issues of life and sex—people pick up on them and grasp them quicker than more complex issues like healthcare and poverty.

What liberal politicians have been able to do—when they’ve been able to craft messages that can be distilled into fairly quick processing by the public—is to talk about issues of faith in their life and how faith has defined who they are. Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio and a former Methodist minister, when he was running for governor in 2006 he would talk about the two greatest influences in his life: his mother and his church. And that distills things really quickly for people. His mother and his faith: Those are, in the American mythology, pretty good things. He is an example of that and he won very big in Ohio and beat a Christian conservative on the Republican side. He didn’t focus on those issues, but he brought it into the debate to talk about how is it that our faith defines us and for him it was about taking care of people and working for the common good.

That’s what Bob Casey did in Pennsylvania as well. He talked about the common good. Casey was very successful and he beat in the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania one of the most influential and important evangelicals on the Republican side, Rick Santorum. In those two instances, you have Democrats who essentially met faith with faith.

Which suffers more damage by being mixed together and why: religion or politics?

I think that’s really splitting hairs because they’re both so damaged by it. I think ultimately democracy is the piece that is experienced on a daily basis by everybody regardless of where they stand on religion. And so the damage to democracy is ultimately perhaps a death knell—perhaps not quite that bad, just devastating.

For faith, though, I think ultimately the worst thing that has happened to the Christian faith in the last couple centuries has been essentially the fusion with politics, certainly in the United States but not only in the United States. And so what many people of good mind both in politics and in religion want to keep quite separate, they swept them along together and have no ability to separate them and so neither one of them is able to accomplish their goals. And they’re noble goals.

Why is faith used as a political weapon fatal to the nation’s future?

Faith is as embedded in this country as baseball. So that’s not going anywhere. But being used for political purposes—this running subtly on “I’m a Christian and my opponent here says he’s a Christian,” like Mike Huckabee suggested about Mitt Romney, that Mormons aren’t really Christians, or Hillary Clinton suggesting that Barack Obama might be a Muslim, saying, “I take him at his word” that he’s not a Muslim—clearly are attempts to use religion to divide the voting electorate, to use faith to get somebody elected or not elected. It’s damaging to our public discussion about politics and who we are as a nation.

The more that we use religion in the public arena to justify positions or to make the case that you should vote for me because of my faith or against someone else because of their faith, what we really do is kill conversations, we stop them, we don’t open them up, we really just end them. That’s why people use this kind of terminology. You don’t help the conversation about Iraq by framing that war as something God has wanted. How do you end a war in Iraq if you’re an American politician when the president of the United States and a good number of others think that we’re on God’s side on this one? If you want to withdraw troops, you essentially have to say “God isn’t who I thought God was.”

Faith used for political purposes really limits conversations and puts our political discussions into a box and almost closes and seals off the box.

In your book, you call today the end of Act I of religious politics.

What brought it to a close and what do you see in Act II?

 What happened in 2004—with the increased media scrutiny to religion in politics and with Kerry’s unwillingness to talk about faith and then losing and many people interpreting his loss because he wouldn’t talk about faith—is that the Democrats said, “Never again. We’re just not going to allow ourselves to be painted as the party hostile to God.”

And so after 2004 Nancy Pelosi creates a working group on faith in the House and a number of other Democrats begin to speak quite publicly about religious faith. For some folks it’s solely strategic; for others it’s both strategic and something they’ve wanted to do for a long time. And then what happens is Terry Schiavo [the brain-damaged Florida woman who became the center of the right-to-die battle] comes along and the stem-cell issue comes along, and on both of those, for religious reasons, the Republican party goes one way and is largely out of step with what the public wants. So you have the Democrats awakening to it and then you have Republicans taking these two steps down pathways that hurt them. So both of those pieces open up, along with the Iraq War, this opportunity for Democrats in 2006. And a number of Democrats step into that opportunity.

As we entered 2008, I would say that the Democrats were much more effectively positioned for talking about faith at the presidential level than the Republicans were. The Republicans had one candidate who wanted to do that—Mike Huckabee—but the candidate they’ll nominate [John McCain] is a man who really doesn’t want to talk about faith at all.

So how can religion and politics be disentangled?

What we need is for people on the political side to have the courage to say, “If people want to believe in God that’s great; that’s part of the American sensibility. But I’m not going to accentuate it in my campaign, and when I’m in office I will protect religious liberties and the liberties of all who choose not to believe in a god.” You have to have political figures who can embrace the American story, and part of that story is to stand and make sure that no religion or religious group is favored over no religious beliefs.

We need educators, including people like myself but also at the secondary and primary levels, to have the courage to talk about faith in ways that are inclusive and also help people to understand the truths about religion in the founding of the nation, where religion rightly plays a role, and where that role stops in the public arena. I think that educators are feeling the tension and fears that many people feel in this country about how you talk about these issues. It’s very difficult terrain, but I think it can be done and I think that it has to be done for the good of creating citizens who understand the appropriate boundaries for faith and for politics.

And we have journalists at major news outlets beginning to scrutinize and take seriously the faith claims and faith justifications that politicians put forward, whether it’s running for president or for city council. So I think journalists are beginning to recognize the scrutiny that needs to be given to faith claims every bit as much as the scrutiny that’s given to economic claims.

Ultimately we will force politicians to disentangle themselves from religion and we’ll force religious leaders to disentangle themselves from politics. And, in fact, this is going on right now. There’s this thing called “An Evangelical Manifesto,” which was drafted this spring by a group of evangelical leaders, and a number of high-profile religious leaders in this country, many of them conservative, are signing on. They make the claim that their faith has been politicized and that this is inappropriate, that they shouldn’t stand by and allow this to happen, and that political leaders shouldn’t try to make it happen.

And so I see this disentangling starting to come from the religious side too. And that is essential.

Shelly Fling is editor of Minnesota.

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