Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed the nation Thursday about his Mormon faith and how it relates to his candidacy and policy goals. Beforehand many called it a potential "JFK moment" because the context recalls John F. Kennedy's storied 1960 address to a group of conservative Protestant clergy in Houston.
In that speech, Kennedy declared: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute" and "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair."
Had Romney delivered a similar speech, it would have been good for the nation. But it would have ended his presidential hopes.
Many of the men who founded the United States were devoutly religious, yet they were also eminently aware of the dangers of faith-driven politics. They were only an ocean removed from the religious violence that had plagued Europe for centuries -- the very strife that had compelled their ancestors to seek a new world.
That's why the Constitution doesn't include a single mention of God and includes a Bill of Rights that begins with a guarantee that Congress can neither establish religion nor prohibit its free exercise. The founders understood that in getting down to the business of governing and creating policy, citizens do well to keep religious doctrines at a distance. This vision is at serious risk today.
In recent decades, conservative Christian evangelicals and Catholics -- the two groups at odds in the 1960 election -- have found common ground. Those voters increasingly seek candidates whose faith infuses their politics. Out is a wall of separation; in is a "bridge between church and state" that George W. Bush -- a favorite of those voters -- offered early in his presidency. It's the model offered by new Iowa GOP front-runner Mike Huckabee, who declares in a current ad that "Faith doesn't just influence me; it really defines me."
The turning point came in 1980. Four years earlier, Jimmy Carter made his Southern Baptist faith a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Once in the White House, however, Carter's strict separation of church and state and moderate policies -- the JFK approach -- disappointed the growing religious conservative movement.
Ronald Reagan responded with what we call the "God strategy": a political voice and agenda that is primarily secularized, but which finds opportunities to "signal" sympathy for religious conservatives' views. That tactic was stunningly successful in 1980, and subsequent presidents have followed suit.
How do we know? We ran the numbers.
Our analysis of thousands of public communications across eight decades shows that U.S. politics today is defined by a calculated, demonstrably public religiosity unlike anything in modern history. Consider one example.
On average, presidents from Franklin Roosevelt -- the beginning of the modern presidency -- to Carter mentioned God in less than half of their major addresses. In contrast, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (through year six) all did so in more than 90 percent of theirs. Further, the total number of references to God in the average presidential speech since 1981 was an astounding 120 percent higher than the average speech from 1933 to 1980. References to broader religious terms, such as faith, pray, sacred, worship and crusade increased by 60 percent.
Wherever we look, whatever we measure, our analysis points to the same conclusion: Today's religious politics are far beyond anything Kennedy knew. Romney, therefore, struck a diametrically different posture in his speech.
Most notably, he said: "We are a nation 'under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. ... He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, Nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.' "
In 1960, JFK sought to be commander in chief. Romney just made his case to be pastor in chief. It's good for his presidential chances, but bad for America.
David Domke is a University of Washington professor. Kevin Coe is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois. They are authors of "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America" (Oxford).
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