Gott Mit Uns

Shibboleths in presidential politics


It's a commonplace that you can't win the presidency of the United States without God. Whether or not he really uses your product, the celebrity endorsement is a must have.

It was not always so. In his classic examination of the fledgling United States, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that religion both flourished and acted to cement democracy in the early republic precisely because religion remained at a certain distance from partisan politics. Tocqueville observed:

In several states 5 the law excludes [clergy] from political life; public opinion excludes them in all. And when I came to inquire into the prevailing spirit of the clergy, I found that most of its members seemed to retire of their own accord from the exercise of power, and that they made it the pride of their profession to abstain from politics.

In the '60s, John F. Kennedy had to reassure voters that he would strive to be "a president whose views on religion are his own private affairs." Today, as a 2002 article published in The Humanist argues, someone like Thomas Jefferson would probably prove unelectable.

This fact has not escaped today's political hopefuls. The ink was barely dry on Franklin Foer's New Republic cover story alleging that Howard Dean was too secular for the American electorate when Dean announced his intention to break out the Jesus-speak when stumping in the South (while, presumably, refraining in the North).

While many have been quick to criticize this shift in rhetoric as cynical pandering, Dean's surely right to be concerned about his image as a secular candidate. Poll after poll confirms the conventional wisdom: Voters want a certain amount of God talk from their presidents. Under an administration that all but claims divine inspiration for every mohair subsidy and steel tariff, Americans are twice as likely to say that politicians invoke religion "too little" as they are to regard the level of religious rhetoric as excessive, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

But what, precisely, are voters looking for when they express a preference for religious politicians? Policy wonks might be inclined to think that citizens of faith want candidates to talk about religion for the same reason that NRA members want them to talk about guns: in order to confirm that they'll pursue certain policy goals once in office.

That would be an unsettling state of affairs for those who believe that state neutrality between different conceptions of the good—including religious conceptions—is a cornerstone of liberal societies. But while some voters clearly do want to see scripture reflected in law, that doesn't seem to be the whole story.

The Pew survey solicited responses to a series of specific invocations of religion by political figures. Overwhelming majorities had no problem with general references, such as Bush's line about freedom being "God's gift to mankind." But less than half were comfortable with a more specific statement that might appear to have policy implications: "I have never believed the Constitution required our schools to be religion-free zones." (Though discomfort dropped significantly when it was revealed that the speaker was Bill Clinton.)

Perhaps, then, America's affinity for religious politicians has less to do with policy than with signaling affective bonds. Sociologist Rodney Stark has long argued that religion originates and flourishes primarily because of the social function it serves. According to Stark, "success is really about relationships and not about faith. What happens is that people form relationships and only then come to embrace a religion. It doesn't happen the other way around." Stark's research suggests that while new converts to a particular faith typically aver that their reasons for joining the group have to do with theological doctrine, they seldom even know precisely what those doctrines are until well after they've become members of the relevant religious community.

Amy Sullivan, writing in the The Washington Monthly, credits George W. Bush's facility with this sort of signaling. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush told the country that "there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." As Sullivan notes, Bush's language there echoes an old gospel song, which says "There is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb." There's no obvious policy significance to the reference; it's what Will Saletan would call an associational framing technique. A piece of rhetoric which passes unnoticed by most listeners serves as a coded message to Evangelicals, a shibboleth. He's signaling: "I'm one of you; I speak your language."

But the Pew survey's findings suggest that this, too, can only be a partial explanation. Even among self-identified secularists, 58 percent believe that Bush's religious views influence his politics "too little" or the "right amount." At a time when Islam has, to put it mildly, a public relations problem in the United States, only 38 percent of respondents—the vast majority of whom were almost certainly Christians of one flavor or another—said they would be reluctant to vote for an otherwise well-qualified Muslim candidate. More than half would have similar reservations about electing an Atheist. In short, it seems that voters care less about whether a candidate shares their religion than about whether he adheres to some religion or other.

Perhaps we see religion as an answer to one of the oldest political problems. If we prefer the rule of law to the rule of men, we must ask, with the Roman satirist Juvenal, quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who watches the watchmen? In other words, when we cede power to political authorities to protect us, who will ensure that they don't use that power to serve their own interests at our expense? Democracy itself provides one check, but a highly imperfect one.

The answer religion provides is that perhaps nobody needs to be actually watching the watchmen, so long as they believe that they are always being watched—and being held accountable—by a power more informed and perceptive than even the electorate. To borrow Nietzsche's provocative term, we may want to ensure that our political masters are bound by a slave morality—which is to say, an ethos characterized by humility and empathy with the powerless, one in which the "will to power" is suppressed. Social theorist Jane Jacobs suggested in her book Systems of Survival that everyday commercial life and the sphere of government are (ideally) governed by distinct "moral syndromes." We don't much object when private citizens act through the market to pursue their own self-interest; such behavior tends to benefit us all in the long run. But we want those who wield political power to play by different rules. So we may want political leaders to express deference to religious principles, even if we don't adhere to the same principles in our private lives.

If that's the case, Dean is off to a bad start. As Foer recounts, Dean's defection from the Episcopal Church to Congregationalism was inspired by a bike-path-to-Damascus experience: The local Episcopal diocese had fought Dean's crusade to build a scenic bike trail, which would've required the Church to cede a strip of property. Politics, in other words, subordinates religion. His recent efforts to change his image may be similarly misguided. Dean's citation of the Book of Job as his favorite biblical passage, for instance, may backfire. First because, as William Safire noted, Dean's comments indicated that he wasn't altogether clear on what, precisely, his favorite passage says or where in the Bible it's found. But, more importantly, by picking Job—indeed, identifying himself with Job—Dean fails to make his faith a signal of humility and subordination to God. Instead, he selects as his exemplar the biblical figure most associated with religious doubt, with a need to question Jehovah, to "come even to his seat…order my cause before him and fill my mouth with arguments."

Liberals—in the broad sense of that term—may get uneasy with their fellow citizens' desire to take their politics with a dose of religion. Yet that desire may prove to be healthy from a liberal perspective. It's a sign that we're not yet ready to accept rulers for whom politics itself is the only thing deserving of worship.