Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
God Talk on the Campaign Trail: Evaluating Religious Appeals
Amy E. Black
By Amy E. Black
Analysis of survey data consistently shows strong relationships between religious identity, observance, and voting. In the last three presidential elections, for example, frequency of attendance at religious services has been one of the best predictors of a person’s vote. Those who often attend services in a church, synagogue, or mosque tend to vote Republican; those who seldom or never attend religious services tend to choose the Democrat. Given these trends, it should be no surprise that religious rhetoric plays an important role in political campaigns. Candidates know what voters expect, just as they know what kind of messages capture voter attention. As people of faith, how should we respond when candidates reach out to religious voters? How should we interpret overtly religious rhetoric?
Perhaps the first place to start is by separating broad appeals to civil religion from more direct references to particular religious traditions and beliefs. Generic religious rhetoric is a staple of American political life, as common as campaign signs printed in some combination of red, white, and blue. Almost all candidates will appeal to civil religion, talking about God’s provision for the nation or ending a speech with the seemingly perfunctory “God Bless America.” The use of such language reveals little to nothing about the speaker’s actual religious views.
Most politicians will also speak about religion in additional ways that move beyond the typical patriotic gloss. Well aware of the data on religion and voting behavior, shrewd campaigners design ways to appeal directly to these key voting constituencies. Thus, a great challenge for people of faith who follow politics is to try and discern the difference between genuine expression of faith and calculated pandering to religious voters. Unfortunately, this is much easier to say than to do.
First, it is natural for Christians to expect candidates to discuss their own faith tradition as part of their personal story. In much the same way that many voters want to know about politicians’ marital history, education, and family background, so may they consider candidates’ religious beliefs. Candidates for public office should be able to speak candidly about their religious affiliation and level of commitment, and journalists and voters should ask direct questions to discern more about candidates’ beliefs and worldviews.
On the other hand, politicians’ willingness to speak at length about their religious beliefs will vary widely, in part due to political strategy but also – and perhaps most significantly – depending on their religious tradition. For those steeped in certain denominations that emphasize personal piety, for example, the inner life of a Christian is primarily kept between oneself and God; talking about personal religious practice risks committing the sin of pride. In other Christian traditions, public discussion of personal religion is not only acceptable but even expected as a sign of true commitment and effective witness. When trying to judge the sincerity of politicians’ religious rhetoric, bear in mind that they may not share the norms or vocabulary of your particular religious tradition.
As the old adage reminds us, however, talk is indeed cheap. Judging candidates merely by their words is unwise. The best way to test the sincerity of campaign appeals is to look for patterns across time. Instead of considering a single speech, event, or advertisement in isolation, evaluate each campaign as a whole by asking questions such as: What are the central themes? Does the candidate speak with a consistent voice on important issues? What kind of tone is the campaign setting? Does the candidate treat opponents, staff, and voters with respect? What reputation has he or she earned in previous employment or service? Seeking answers to such questions will create a clearer picture of each candidate’s character and priorities and help you make a wise voting decision that reflects your religious values.
—Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College and author of the forthcoming book Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Faith, and Reason (Moody Publishers).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”