Monday, December 03, 2007

Religion and Politics - Where It Went Wrong

Today's USA Today has an interesting op-ed, from David Domke, a co-author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, about, well, the intersection of religion and presidential politics. Specifically, he argues that the turning point for religion in politics - from fairly minor consideration to driving concern - came in 1980 during Reagan's speech to the GOP national convention.

That was set up by Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign, when he played the evangelical card in the campaign but kept that largely separate from his actual governing (you know, like the Constitution requires). Evangelicals, energized by the reach out but angered by the lack of action fell under Reagan's spell and haven't looked back since. As a result, presidents of both parties have aggressively courted the religious vote:

Reagan's 1980 convention address changed the nature of these speeches. From 1952, when acceptance addresses began to be televised live, through 1976, Democratic and Republican nominees invoked God on average 2.4 times per address and included common faith terms 11.8 times per address.

In contrast, since 1984 the GOP nominee has invoked God an average of 5.2 times per address — more than doubling the previous level — and included 19.5 faith terms. That's a 65% increase. Among Democrats, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 made only a handful of religious references, but beginning with Bill Clinton in 1992, the party's nominees have averaged 4.3 God invocations and 16.5 faith terms per address — increases of 77% and 40% over pre-1980 levels. Presidential candidates are now afraid of being seen as the apostate in the room. They use these speeches to signal that they're not.

Another tactic is for politicians to make "pilgrimages" to speak before audiences of faith. From FDR through Carter, presidents averaged 5.3 public remarks before overtly religious organizations in a four-year term. Beginning with Reagan through six years of George W. Bush's presidency, this average more than tripled to 16.6 per term. For example, since 1981 GOP presidents have spoken 13 times to the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Religious Broadcasters Association, four times to the Knights of Columbus, and four times to the Southern Baptist Convention.
In addition, Clinton spoke in churches more than Reagan and the two Bushes combined! That, in Domke's mind (and mine), isn't a good thing:To grasp what is at stake, we might recall another presidential campaign pilgrimage:
John Kennedy's address before conservative Protestant clergy in September 1960. Unlike current candidates, the Catholic Kennedy promised a White House in which decisions would be made 'without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.' Such a presidency was essential, he said, because 'today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart.'

It was a winning message then. It's one desperately needed today.
Indeed. And particularly timely, as the paper also reports that GOP hopeful Mitt Romney is poised to give a major speech on his Mormon faith this Thursday in Texas:
'Gov. Romney understands that faith is an important issue to many Americans,' campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said. 'He personally feels this moment is the right moment for him to share his views with the nation.'

* * *

Madden said Romney made the decision last week. The speech gives him a chance to 'share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor's own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected,' Madden said.
The fact is that Romney is starting to feel the heat from Mike Huckabee, who is wooing the religious conservatives who still aren't quire sure that Mormon Mitt is their kind of person. All of which is highly ironic, given Mitt's own history of religious bigotry.

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