Fifty years ago Thursday, John F. Kennedy placed his hand on the Bible and took the presidential oath of office. On that cold snowy January day as Kennedy became the 35th U.S. president, it represented the removal of the "no Catholics allowed" sign from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. During the closely-contested 1960 campaign, Kennedy faced questions and even attacks from many Protestant leaders who feared that a Catholic president would be dangerous to the nation and foundational democratic values like religious liberty. Kennedy eloquently addressed those concerns in his campaign speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
Five decades later, the relationship between religion and politics espoused by most successful national politicians differs dramatically from what Kennedy masterfully advanced. While Kennedy argued that a candidate's personal religious beliefs should not matter, today's candidates often openly testify about their religiosity in hopes of finding political salvation in the ballot box. While Kennedy argued that religious rhetoric should not be used for partisan purposes and political rhetoric should not be sectarian, today's candidates use religious-political rhetoric in partisan and sectarian ways. Finally, while Kennedy believed that religious references should only be ceremonial in nature, today's politicians often adopt a more liturgical tone as if they are running to become the nation's Pastor-in-Chief.
Below are ten of the quotations from general election candidates from 1976-2008 that best represent this dramatic shift in American presidential campaign rhetoric. Although wilder quotations could be assembled from candidates who did not capture their party's nomination or religious leaders who attempted to influence the electoral outcome, the God talk of the nominees best represents the changing American political scene.
10. Ronald Reagan, 1984. One of the most significant developments over the past few decades has been the open opposition to the historic principle of separation of church and state. Reagan often pushed this argument, especially with his support for voluntary school prayer.
"I deeply believe that the loving God who gave us this land should never have been expelled from America's classrooms. If the Congress can begin its day with prayer, children can, too."
9. Jimmy Carter, 1976. Over the past few decades, there has developed an expectation that candidates will publicly confess their private religious beliefs. The born-again Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher helped create this expectation as he openly talked about his religious beliefs and practices -- even suggesting it is the duty of candidates to do so.
"I've wondered to talk about [my faith] at all. ... But I feel I have a duty to the country -- and maybe to God -- not to say 'no comment.'"
8. Barack Obama, 2008. The biggest problem with the claims that Obama is a secret Muslim is not that it is false but that this is offered as a reason for why he should not be president. During the campaign, Obama often reacted so zealously against the claim that he seemed to justify the underlying assumption. Instead of challenging the de facto religious test for office, he instead tried to prove he passed the test.
"I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life."
7. George W. Bush, 2004. A common problem in contemporary political discourse is to describe Americans in sectarian religious terms, thus excluding those who practice a non-monotheistic faith or no faith.
"Americans of every faith and every tradition turn daily to God in reverence and humility."
6. Bill Clinton, 1996. Presidential candidates today frequently quote scripture to promote their specific partisan policy proposals. Clinton drew from biblical texts on numerous topics, including justifying his support for V-chip TV technology.
"The Bible asks, 'If your child asks for bread, would you give him a stone? If he asks for fish, would you give him a serpent? If he asks for an egg, would you give him a scorpion?' Our children are what we give them, what we teach them. We dare not forget that basic truth. Their lives and our common future depend upon it."
5. George W. Bush, 2004. Political discourse in recent campaigns often works to rhetorically exclude Americans who are atheists or agnostics from being considered full-fledged citizens or legitimate leaders.
"I happen to believe that it would be very difficult to be the President without believing. I believe that -- I know it's been an important part of my presidency."
4. John McCain, 2008. In addition to atheists, Muslims are also often singled out as not passing the de facto religious test for office.
"I admire the Islam. There's a lot of good principles in it. ... But I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith."
3. Jimmy Carter, 1980. At times, presidential candidates in recent decades act quite evangelistically as they urge Americans to read the Bible and pray.
"I suggest that when you get home, you get your Bible if you've got one -- I'm sure you have -- turn to Exodus 20 and read the Third Commandment. ... Well, don't forget now when you get home, read the Bible, okay? How many of you will look it up? Okay. Keep your promise."
2. George H. W. Bush, 1992. Partisan attacks on the other party for not being good Christians routinely appear during recent presidential campaigns.
"The other party took words to put together their platform, but left out three simple letters: G-O-D."
1. Ronald Reagan, 1984. Much as God apparently helps bring victory in every Super Bowl, candidates also claim his support in campaigns. Reagan borrowed biblical language about being a faithful Christian to explain why he was certain Republicans would find salvation in the ballot box.
"If we trust in Him, keep His word, and live our lives for His pleasure, He'll give us the power we need -- power to fight the good fight, to finish the race, and to keep the faith."
Bonus: Most surprising non-campaign quotation. During Reagan's presidency, the man often viewed as his conservative prototype -- Barry Goldwater -- offered a stunning critique of the increasing role religion was playing in American politics. Despite the shared political ideals of the two men, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee appeared to differentiate himself dramatically from Reagan's religious electoral model.
"I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across the country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in the 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' and 'D.' Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral belief to me? And I'm even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. And the religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected with them recognize that religion has no place in public policy."
Goldwater's sentiment helps demonstrate how substantially God talk in presidential campaigns has changed since the era of Kennedy and Goldwater. Today's era of confessional politics stands in stark opposition to the ideals JFK espoused five decades ago.
Dr. Brian T. Kaylor, a former Baptist pastor, teaches political communication, advocacy, and public speaking at James Madison University. He is the author of a new book, Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns.
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