by David Weiss
“I’m a Christian by choice...I came to my Christian faith later in life, and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead...Understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes, and that we achieve salvation through the grace of God...My public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith.”
Do you recognize those words? They weren’t uttered by a pastor, a nun, the director of a “faith-based initiative,” or any other sort of religious leader, nor were they the text of a Sunday morning service, a televangelist’s broadcast, or even a Washington, D.C., rally. But if you’ve been closely following the political news during this 2010 midterm election season, you might be able identify the speaker: President Barack Obama. During a September 28th discussion with neighborhood families in the backyard of an Albuquerque home, the president was asked by a voter, “Why are you a Christian?” His response, parts of which appear above, made headlines nationwide.
Why would a president’s public confession of faith be deemed newsworthy? Cynics might claim that Mr. Obama’s remarks were simply part of his ongoing efforts to rebut the rumor that he’s a Muslim. I suspect, however, that if doing so had been Obama’s only motivation, his Albuquerque confession wouldn’t have gotten the media attention that it did. After all, Obama has been countering false claims about his faith since well before he took office, as illustrated by www.fightthesmears.com, a page originally linked to his 2008 campaign web site. And since August 2010, when the Pew Research Center released poll results showing that roughly one in five Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, the Administration has gone into overdrive attempting to bat the rumor away. Within days of the Pew publication, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs described the president as a “committed, mainstream Christian.” Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton went even further, telling reporters that Obama’s faith “is an important part of his daily life. He prays every day. He seeks a small circle of Christian pastors to give him spiritual advice and counseling. He even receives a daily devotional that he uses each morning. The President’s Christian faith is a part of who he is, but not a part of what the public or the media is focused on every day.”
Whether Obama’s Albuquerque testimony was merely an impromptu, if eloquent, response to a voter’s question or part of a larger, more orchestrated image-rebuilding campaign, his words can also be evaluated within a much broader context: the religious communication of presidents and politicians throughout more than two centuries of American history. As my contributors and I demonstrate in my new edited collection What Democrats Talk About When They Talk About God, candidates and office-holders in both major parties have been talking about God—in their personal correspondence, on the campaign trail, and in the White House—since the founding of the Republic.
For most of the first 200 years of the American presidency, aspirants to and occupiers of the Oval Office spoke about God in ways firmly in keeping with the tradition of civil religion: acknowledging the existence of a creator that guided and blessed the United States (and possibly its “mission” on the world stage) and asking for the continuation of such guidance and blessing—but assiduously avoiding any mention of their own religious beliefs. Typical of this early approach were George Washington who, in his first inaugural address, praised the “Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man,” and James Madison, who spoke of the “Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations.” But that civil-religious tradition was broken in 1975, when presidential candidate Jimmy Carter told the world that he was “born again”—a phrase not often heard at that time outside of evangelical churches—and publicly described a moment during which he had felt “closest to Christ and first experienced in a personal and intense way the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.”
Carter’s remarks about his own relationship with God, a deity with rather different attributes from Washington’s providential “Invisible Hand” and Madison’s destiny-regulating “Almighty Being,” opened a door for contemporary politicians from across the ideological spectrum to bring their personal religious experiences into the public sphere. While not every president who followed Carter to the White House followed in his confessional footsteps—George H. W. Bush was noticeably reticent in this regard—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the current president have been remarkably forthcoming about their private beliefs, as have presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush, who famously declared in a 1999 presidential primary debate that his favorite “philosopher” was Jesus Christ because a relationship with Christ “changes your heart.”
In this year’s midterm election races, God hasn’t been as big an issue as He was in, say, the 2000 or 2004 presidential contests; jobs and the economy are the priorities for most candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. But this isn’t to say that religion has been completely absent from the campaign trail. Catholic bishops in Minnesota have mailed “educational packages” featuring DVDs to citizens in their state, urging them to vote against same-sex marriage and candidates who would support it. Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for Senate from Nevada, has said she believes that “God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations.” Arizona U.S. House candidate Pamela Gorman, also a Republican, brags in her TV commercials that she’s a “conservative Christian and a pretty fair shot.” Not to be outdone in the God-and-guns competition, Democratic U.S. House candidate and recent war veteran Tommy Sowers of Missouri is airing a commercial in which he talks to camera while holding a rifle and a steel-encased book, claiming that “when I served in Iraq, I wasn’t alone: I had my fellow soldiers and this combat Bible.” Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck of Colorado has voiced his “opposition to the principle of separating church and state,” a sentiment that Sharron Angle has publicly shared. Meanwhile, Democrat Ben Lowe of Illinois, a candidate for the U.S. House, is running on the slogan “Restoring Our Moral Compass”; central to his pro-environment policy positions is his stated belief that Christians “are called to be good stewards” of God’s creation. Still, in this year’s midterm races, these are the exceptions, not the rule.
At the same time, religious communication and church-state issues have been front and center elsewhere in the 2010 public sphere. As media coverage of the “Obama’s a Muslim” rumors was at its peak, a Florida pastor threatened to burn Qu’rans on September 11th and garnered media coverage—and condemnations—from around the globe. The controversy about the appropriateness of building an Islamic Center several blocks from the ruins of the World Trade Center continues to rage, affecting political races within and outside of New York State. (Renee Ellmers, a candidate for the U.S. House from North Carolina, has run commercials denouncing what she calls a “victory mosque.”) The Texas state school board instructed textbook publishers to make sure their world-history books are “more favorable to Christianity and less positive toward Islam.”
And, perhaps most prominently, Fox News host Glenn Beck hosted a “Rally to Restore Honor” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an event he described as having “nothing to do with this city or politics [but] everything to do with God Almighty . . . turning our faith back to the values and principles that made us great.” Addressing the foundational American belief that the political and religious realms should be kept separate, Beck acknowledged that “we cannot mix those two—but we must give voice to what God says we can do.” Not all the people sharing the stage with Beck were as moderate, however. Pastor David Barton, author of the book The Myth of Separation, told the assembled crowd that “we don’t want our country to become secular.” Similarly, John Hagee, who some may remember from the 2008 presidential race as “John McCain’s pastor,” prayed for America to overcome its current “politically correct fog” and its “idolatry of pluralism.”
Set against this backdrop, Barack Obama’s “I’m a Christian by choice” remarks in that Albuquerque backyard seem rather tame, in keeping with the Jimmy Carter/George W. Bush tradition of personal confession if not the George Washington/James Madison mode of acknowledging the providence of a “watchmaker” God that guides our nation’s destiny. Coming as they did on September 28th—the same day that the Pew Research Center published another study, this one showing that most Americans are distressingly deficient in religious knowledge—the president’s profession of faith may have even offered an anodyne for our fractious political moment.
David Weiss is assistant professor at Montana State University, Billings, and the editor of What Democrats Talk about When They Talk about God: Religious Communication in Democratic Party Politics.