God in Political Speechmaking

How to do things with religious words.

Posted Dec 01, 2011

Nothing gets us in the gut like Jesus. U.S. Political leaders use hidden religious references to rouse our most primitive emotional states and activate our earliest childhood experiences.

In his new book, _The Podium, The Pulpit, and The Republicans: How Presidential Candidates Use Religious Language in American Political Debate_, Episcopal Minister Frederick Stecker shows how politicians use "stealth" bible imagery as a way of splitting us mentality, of taking us back to a time when we saw the world in black and white. This is before we learned the psychological task of holding a steady tension between polar opposites, before our recognition that people can be both good and bad simultaneously.

Stecker traces a dramatic change in American political rhetoric of the last 30 years and examines how the increasing presence of God in politics has changed us as a nation. Religion and politics were not always so intimately intertwined in this country. "'God Bless the United States of America' was used only once in a major national address prior to 1980... while from 1981-2007 it was used by presidents of both parties a total of 49 times." (Stecker, 49)

Ronald Reagan's campaign for president in 1980 was the watershed event. God was invoked in 93.5% of the national addresses made by Reagan and his successors Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. After ERA, Stonewall, Vietnam, Kent State, the "New Right" and religious right were disenfranchised and angry, says Stecker.  Political conservatives felt the morals of our country were in decline along with cherished family values.  Our leaders' speeches referenced our country in a whole new way: America's purpose became a "mission" with use of this word rising 300% and "crusade" (in the parlance of George W. following 9/11) climbed 400%.

Stecker focuses on the fear generated by Bush and McCain in the elections of 2000-2008. Following 9/11, born-again President Bush described America's foreign policy in theological terms, with citations from scripture that might slide by the consciousness of some listeners. Consider: in his speech to the troops at Fort Hood, Texas (2003), Bush said "Everybody is precious, everybody counts," invoking the hymnal verses "Precious in the eyes of the Lord." Then within a few breaths, he declaimed "they're nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers, and that's the way we're going to treat them," pitting Christianity against Islam. Through biblical citations, some leaders manipulate a portion of the public into binary thinking, a regressive splitting of the world into good and bad without having to grapple with shades of grey.

Republicans used language to created metaphors -- "threat imagery" -- during the 2004 debates that exacerbated fears about our nation's security. This, Stecker notes, was an important part of the build up to our invasion of Iraq, also called "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Prior to Bush's excessive use of "freedom" in his speeches after 9/11 ("they hate our freedom"), he cited the word in the 2000 Presidential debate, notably in relation to "power":

"Now we trust freedom. We know that freedom is a powerful, powerful, powerful force, much bigger that the United States of America..."

Stecker suggests we reflect on the religious connotations of these terms "freedom" and "liberty" with reference to the Pauline concept of "perfect freedom" and "perfect liberty" in Jesus Christ (Galatians 5:1)."

Among other veiled religious images are those alluding Armageddon. During the 2004 and 2008 debates, Bush used an apocalyptic vocabulary to signal fundamentalist Christians. His educational incentive "No child Left Behind" resonated with readers of Tim LaHaye's best-selling fictions series _Left Behind_. Through titles such as "Soul Harvest" and "Glorious Appearing," LaHaye portrays Judgement Day in a literal interpretation of the bible's Revelation to John.  Bush's program was a call to fundamentalist Christians who predict the "Rapture" of Christ's reappearance on earth and the beliefs of "end timers." 

Theologian Harvey Cox suggests part of the appeal of the books lies in the "lip-licking anticipation of all the blood." LaHaye's Christ is an avenging warrior who slaughters masses of non-believers. The armies of the Antichrist are ripped asunder at a mere utterance from Jesus. According to LaHaye: "We've gone through a time when liberalism has so twisted the real meaning of Scripture that we've manufactured a loving, wimpy Jesus that he wouldn't even do anything in judgment. That's not the Jesus of the bible."  These books mythologize violence and redemption through a sense of shared story.

Stecker argues the clandestine use of contemporary religion in contemporary politicals has resulted in a makeover of the Grand Old Party since the early 1970s, and its increasing alliance with evangelical Christians. Through religious signaling, the New Right has joined with the religious right. This covert language and careful word-smithing (what Stecker calls "stealth warfare") is the glue that binds them.

The rehearsed rhetoric of presidential candidates during the late 20 and early 21st century creates pivotal action. A small group of the electorate, 6-8%, has decided the last several elections. Presidential debates, claims Stecker, are the stage where these scripted lines become most effective, proving crucial to choice of the undecided voter.

As philosopher J.L. Austin says, words do things. Prick up your ears. Listen out for that sneaky perversion of the Golden Rule: Undo others before they can undo you.



Frederick Stecker, _The Podium, The Pulpit, and The Republicans: How Presidential Candidates Use Religious Language in American Political Debate_, Santa Barbara, CA, Praeger, 2011.

Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, Annual Conference, "Pathos, Politics, and Passion," Nov. 4-5, 2011, Rutgers Univ, New Brunswick, NJ.


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