Think Religion Plays a Bigger Role in Politics Today? You're Right. Statistics Prove It.

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Mr. Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. Mr. Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. They are authors of the just-published book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America (Oxford).

The 2008 presidential campaign is striking in that it seems to be nearly as much about religion as politics.

Mitt Romney’s much-discussed speech on faith and politics is just one recent example of a trend that has stretched throughout the campaign and across both sides of the partisan aisle. During the seemingly endless string of debates, candidates have pondered what Jesus would do about capital punishment, raised their hands to deny evolution, considered whether America is a Christian nation, described the power of prayer, and eagerly affirmed that yes, the Bible is indeed the word of God.

There was a time when such overt religious displays from presidential hopefuls might have been surprising. Now they’re a mundane feature of every serious campaign. How did we get here? In a sense, it all began on July 17, 1980.

That evening, in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for president. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, newly mobilized through organizations such as the Moral Majority, had found their man.

For the previous four years this constituency had tried to like Jimmy Carter who, after all, was an openly “born again” Christian. But Carter had disappointed the political faithful with his insufficiently aggressive foreign policy, support for Roe v. Wade, and general unwillingness to make his faith demonstrably public. Indeed, Carter in his nomination acceptance addresses in 1976 and 1980 made no mention of God whatsoever.

Reagan had a very different strategy. Approaching the end of his 1980 acceptance speech, Reagan departed from his prepared remarks: “I have thought of something that is not part of my speech and I’m worried over whether I should do it.” He paused, then continued:

“Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity.”

Reagan went on, “I’ll confess that”—and here his voice faltered momentarily—“I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest.” A long pause ensued, followed by this: “I’m more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?” The entire hall went silent, heads bowed. He then concluded with words uncommon at the time: “God bless America.”

How do we know that this moment marked a turning point? We ran the numbers.

Our analysis of thousands of public communications across eight decades shows that American politics today is defined by a calculated, demonstrably public religiosity unlike anything in modern history. Consider a few examples.

If one looks at nearly 360 major speeches that presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush have given, the increase in religiosity is astounding. The average president from FDR to Carter mentioned God in a minority of his speeches, doing so about 47% of the time. Reagan, in contrast, mentioned God in 96% of his speeches. George H. W. Bush did so 91% of the time, Clinton 93%, and the current Bush (through year six) was at 94%. Further, the total number of references to God in the average presidential speech since 1981 is 120% higher than the average speech from 1933-1980. References to broader religious terms, such as faith, pray, sacred, worship, crusade, and dozens of others increased by 60%.

Presidential requests for divine favor also show a profound shift. The phrase “God Bless America,” now the signature tagline of American politics, gained ubiquity in the 1980s. Prior to 1981, the phrase had only once passed a modern president’s lips in a major address: Richard Nixon’s, as he concluded an April 30, 1973, speech about the Watergate scandal. Since Reagan, presidents have rarely concluded a major address without “God Bless America” or a close variant.

Recent presidents have also made far more “pilgrimages” to speak to 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 Bush, 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. Clinton never spoke to these conservative organizations; instead, he spoke in churches. From FDR through Carter, presidents delivered public remarks in churches an average of twice per four-year term. In contrast, Clinton spoke in churches 28 times during two terms in the White House—10 more visits than Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. combined.

Wherever we looked, whatever we measure, we find the same pattern. Presidents and presidential hopefuls since Reagan have been afraid to be seen as the apostate in the room. They put religion front and center to show they’re not.

This new age is one that many past presidents would hardly recognize. One can’t help but wonder what would become of a candidate today who, like John Kennedy in 1960, “believe[s] in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.”  

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R.R. Hamilton - 12/27/2007

That's why they, people like the authors, are so often surprised the morning after elections.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/27/2007

I liked your comments, too, R. R.

Many Democrats, like the authors of this post, have lately seen references to God and religion in political campaigns as working against their candidates, but I'm not sure they're right. I've noticed a great many former GOP professional people, especially in affluent suburbs, (RINOs--Religious In Name Only), who belong to old-line churches led by very red preachers, turning away from the GOP because they notice many evangelical and fundamentalist Republicans belong to a lower, more unfashionable social stratum, and they don't care to be lumped with them. They also buy into the notion such voters have become an impediment to science and human progress. This all evolved from the stranglehold over higher education taken by extremist liberals 35 years ago. It has instilled in these RINOs, also, a dwindling appreciation for capitalism and a profound ignorance of economics.

R. R. Hamilton - 12/27/2007

Dear Mr. Hughes,

An excellent comment; I wish I had written it.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/27/2007

Mr. Gaston, above, seems to think Ronald Reagan was insincere in his use of God references, but Reagan's diaries provide ample evidence he was a real believer. (Who would dwell on theology in his diary, repeatedly, if he was not?)

The prototypical non-Believer was probably President Clinton, who was caught wiping the smile off his face at funerals and insincerely reaching for his Bible all the time.

Maybe lots of them have used references to God cynically. How can we know? But I think the ballgame has changed.

For the first century and three-quarters it could do no harm for a President to profess devotion to God and Christ, because non-believers held nothing against true believers in America. This has changed in recent decades, as the left has made a strenuous legal effort to stamp out Chrisianity, first on the bench, then in the schools and now in excluding nativity scenes and chisled commandments from public property. They have made considerable headway in all this, another part of which is to stigmatize believers as under-educated, not worthy of admission to sophisticated fora, the product of less than elite schools, and incapable of forming meritorious opinions about secular matters, scientific matters, or, of course, metaphysical matters--which they hold to be complete nonsense.

Non-believers did not used to care if their candidates were devout, and such candidates had nothing to lose by pretending to be. The difference today is the devout now attract some measure of hostility BECAUSE they are devout.

This happened partly because many on the left wandered so far from the faith of their fathers that they don't recall Christianity any more--and, in fact, have come to fear it. Considerable numbers of Americans fear Christianity. They don't remember that Christians really do love their neighbors, attempt to follow the golden rule and turn the other cheek, and comprise, as a group, the least-threatening, most tolerant body of religious enthusiasts on the face of the earth.

Most honest people will agree that more Republicans than Democrats are devout Believers these days--certainly among the small group in each party which boasts the highest intelligence-- the group from which future Presidents are chosen. This makes it pretty inevitable, in my mind, that you are more likely to see a Democrat looking into the camera and mouthing platitudes about God without believing what he(or she)is saying, than a Republican. Such deceit is often obvious to Christian onlookers, which can account for their drifting to one side at the ballot box when the alternative is, say, a Mitt Romney, whose words about God are obviously his sincere core beliefs. Accordingly, when Democrats nominate a non-believer who is not an excellent liar, they will suffer a disadvantage, until the number of people developed to hate and fear Christianity has surpassed their opposites. And they must surpass their opposites by a goodly margin, too, because the whole matter is more important to the Believers.

Barbara Jean Cornett - 12/25/2007

In the past we never needed to be specific about religion because we were clearly a Christian nation. Today rather than being one nation with free speech we have diversity and political correctness with each group persuing its own interests.

I am stunned that Jews can have so much presence, control and power over our government at the same time they are demanding that we get Christians out of our own government.

I was shocked to come online and discover that I am not a liberal like those Jews in the northeast but that I am a Democrat whose interests conflict with the Jews who run our party with their money. Jews have driven millions out of the Democratic Big Tent party and now Jewish neocons are destroying the Republican party.

If ethnic and religious states are acceptable why shouldn't we make the United States into an Aryan Christian nation. Something is either right or it is wrong but we shouldn't have our Christian children killing muslims and being killed by them at the same time Jews in the USA are waging an all out attack against our religon and our culture and nation.

N. Friedman - 12/24/2007


I meant to say that Jews do not merely represent a devotional group. In fact, I think that a large number of Jews are not religious at all.

N. Friedman - 12/24/2007

Mr. Hamilton,

Well, I have seen only one other group compared to Jews with respect to winning Nobel prize. That is Muslims, who have won very few, notwithstanding their large numbers.

Regarding influence, I do not see what you have in mind. Jews do not represent a devotional group but an ethnic group. So, what would it mean to seek out those who have a particular confession? I have no idea.

Again, I do not deny that Jews have influence. I do not see it as a concerted interest in any particular direction. That is my point.

R. R. Hamilton - 12/24/2007

Dear Mr. Friedman,

Yes, the Bush administration has one Jew in its cabinet, filling a post formerly held by a conservative Christian. Of course, to put things in perspective the conservative Christian appointee, John Ashcroft, was supremely, almost overly, qualified for the post of attorney general. This was the only “place at the table” (cabinet position) Bush granted to conservative Christians despite their accounting for about 35% of his vote totals. Compare this with Jews getting an equal number of cabinet posts while representing less than 1% of his supporters.

You are being too modest when you say that Jews have had “some influence” in American politics and culture. I recall a front-page Wall Street Journal article a few years ago which discussed a movement of some colleges to make changes on their campuses to attract more Jewish students – a move designed to increase the average SAT score of new students. The article was accompanied by a chart of average SAT scores of the different religious affiliations. Of about 15, Jews were third, behind two of the smaller Protestant sects. Apparently, however, attracting the brighter blooms of the different varieties of Protestantism didn’t require modifications of the campus cafeteria kitchens. My point is that while I haven’t done so, I suspect that like you, I could look through the list of, say, Nobel Prize winners, and show that some non-Jewish religious group was startlingly over-represented among the numbers. Perhaps it is in claims of Jews’ superior intelligence where your modesty could find a home? Perhaps there are other explanations for the much-discussed levels of Jewish political and cultural influence?

Regarding the “founding fathers”, first, we may have a definitional problem. Neither I nor, I think, most Americans limit “founding fathers” to the handful of men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787. Rather, we mean by that term the whole of the revolutionary generation – or at a minimum, the men who were eligible to vote to help ratify the Constitution. To confine it otherwise would seem to be antithetical to America’s egalitarian spirit. And, after all, doesn’t the preamble begin “We, the people of the United States”, not “We, a few dozen men in Philadelphia”? Moreover, it is true that some of the leading men of the day, particularly Virginians, were irreligious and/or called themselves “Deists”. It is helpful to remember that the other colonies feared during the Revolutionary Era that nothing could be done without the assent of Virginia – the richest and most populous of the colonies; it is not an accident that man who was asked to be the first to call for independence was a Virginian (Lee), that the man assigned to write the Declaration was a Virginian (Jefferson), and that the man asked to lead the army of the Revolution was a Virginian (Washington). And so similarly it was with “a wink and a nod” that seemingly irreligious clauses and phrases of the Constitution were included as a sop to the irreligious but politically indispensable Virginians.

When you say that “a very large percentage of Americans” favor “driving Christianity out of the public square”, I fear you may be confusing the members of the American public one finds in college faculty lounges to those found in the American public at large.

N. Friedman - 12/22/2007

Ms. Cornett,

Were it true that Jews were, contrary to fact, single-minded and, by some magical means, had the power to control the culture or politics of the United States in the profound manner you opine, the time would surely not be wasted driving Christianity from this world. And, if polling on Jewish politics is to be believed, Bush would never have been elected president and the US would never have gone to war in Iraq.

If you examine the Bush administration, its primary influence - notwithstanding its rhetoric - comes from the oil industry and, to a lesser extent, big business. And, the administration's policies have benefited one industry more than any other, viz., the oil industry. Note the higher prices on gasoline and heating oil since Bush has been president. And, by the way, the oil industry is an industry with very few Jews - probably a much smaller percentage of Jews than Jews make up in the general US population. Moreover, the Bush administration has had only one Jew at a top cabinet position: the current attorney general, who was only just recently sworn into office. The original attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft, was known to hold daily religious prayer sessions of the Christian variety. The President, Mr. Bush, finds solace in his religion, about which he speaks fairly often, which is his right.

It is to be noted that the influence Jews have - and I do not deny that Jews actually have some influence - is due primarily to the fact that Jews have made enormous contributions to our civilization. You might take a look at the number of Jews who have won Nobel prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry and economics. 0.2% of the world's population has won about 20% of all Nobel prizes and, in the noted subjects, an even larger percentage. And, that is the tip of the iceberg. So, if Jews have some influence, notwithstanding considerable hostility, it is earned.

Further, your argument that that America is a Christian nation is contradicted by the fact that the founding fathers - Deists, you will recall - envisioned a secular country with, as it states in the Constitution, no religious test for holding high office. And, by secular is meant a country open to all religions, with no particular religion established in power. That makes the US fairly unique in the world - the light among the nations.

As for driving Christianity out of the public sphere, has it not occurred to you that such is do to the very large percentage of Americans who do not see the impact of religion in public life as good public policy? For what it is worth, devout religious Jews do not accept that viewpoint and believe, instead, that public life without any spirituality and religious guidance is nihilism. On the other hand, Jews who are not devout tend often to see the matter in the same way that many other non-devout Americans see the matter. And, on this matter, Jews are very divided, probably as much as the rest of society.

N. Friedman - 12/20/2007

Mr. Coe,

I think that it all depends on the period being examined and what you are examining in the periods in question. Certainly, compared to the early years of US history, the current era has, by comparison, all but removed religion from public life. Recall that, for example, Massachusetts had blasphemy laws in the early to mid-19th Century. The world was sufficiently different at that time that, to such people, we certainly live in a godless era.

Even in more recent times, religious prayers were said in school. As you are aware, the Supreme Court ended the practice. That altered the landscape of society profoundly, as it impacted on how children grew up.

I really do not see how your conclusion can be correct. I think that you can say that, compared to the 1990's, religion has made a slight comeback. But, even then, it is pretty slight thus far.

Kevin Coe - 12/20/2007

That's precisely why it's crucial to look at multiple measures of presidential religiosity--which we do in the book. We count references to God, but also look at dozens of other religious terms, what audiences presidents spoke to, how they talked about the nation in religious terms, what proclamations they issued, how they celebrated Christmas, how they linked God and freedom, etc. We also analyze every party platform since 1932.

You're right to be cautious about using statistics; you're wrong to hint that our analysis isn't demonstrating a meaningful change.

R. R. Hamilton - 12/19/2007

You seem to be counting every "God bless America" at the end of a Presidential speech as an equivalent with FDR leading the nation in prayer, as in: "And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer: Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity."

History shows that Washington, Lincoln, and FDR were leading national prayers ("preachers-in-chief"). Compare that with our recent Presidents, who rarely have the courage to say more than "God bless America". Statistics can "prove" anything, I guess.

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/19/2007

Ronald Reagan was so media wise that he was able to play the press (print and broadcast) like a cheap violin.

The most noteworthy examples of this took place during the rather severe recession that took place in the early part of his first term. When the economic or business news was really bad you could expect Ron to make a speech about abortion where he made a lot of references to natural law, God and the Baby Jesus.

The next three news days would be filled with discussion of Reagan’s abortion speech. The bad economic news went to PBS and the Business section of daily newspapers.

Was it cynical? Yes. Did it work? Yes.

It worked because our fourth estate is lazy. I’m really not too sure they ever really caught on to the game. Even if they did catch on, they did not appear to care.

Kevin Coe - 12/18/2007

Thanks for your question. You make an important point: all presidents, including FDR, have referenced God. What we demonstrate in our book, however, is that, on average, FDR and other pre-Reagan modern presidents were far less likely to be publicly religious than were Reagan and those since. Instead of pulling out various examples, which is what most previous work has done, we look at everything—literally thousands of communications—and systematically analyze various measures of religiosity. On every measure, we find the same trend: things changed with Reagan, and haven’t changed back since.

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/18/2007

I'm confused, in reviewing many of FDR's major addresses I found many references to deity. FDR was capable of invoking the blessings of the Almighty in times of crisis. He was also capable of banging on the Bible when he was in political trouble. Just a few examples are provided below.

His radio address after D-Day was, in fact, a prayer, and is quoted below:
“My Fellow Americans:
Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home -- fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them -- help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too -- strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment -- let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace -- a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.”

Here are a few more examples:

The following is quoted from his first inaugural address in March 1933. “In this dedication of a nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us! May He guide me in the days to come!”

Even when he was trying to pack the Supreme Court he made the following reference during a radio address: “I hope that you have re-read the Constitution of the United States in these past few weeks. Like the Bible, it ought to be read again and again.”
The following is quoted from The Four Freedom Speech in January 1941. ”This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God.”

When declaring a national emergency in May of 1941 he described one of the results of Nazi domination as follows: “Yes, even our right of worship would be threatened. The Nazi world does not recognize any God except Hitler; for the Nazis are as ruthless as the Communists in the denial of God. What place has religion which preaches the dignity of the human being, the majesty of the human soul, in a world where moral standards are measured by treachery and bribery and fifth columnists? Will our children, too, wander off, goosestepping in search of new gods?”

Even in the Fala speech in 1944: “And so, my friends, we have had affirmation of the vitality of democratic government behind us, that demonstration of its resilience and its capacity for decision and for action - we have that knowledge of our own strength and power - we move forward with God's help to the greatest epoch of free achievement by free men that the world has ever known.”