John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign speech about his Catholicism made news again this year when former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said reading the speech made him want to “throw up.” Santorum took umbrage with Kennedy’s remarks because they, in his estimation, claimed a complete separation of personal faith from governance. While the “throw up” line was probably an unwise political statement it again brought to the forefront the debate about religion and its role in politics and the public square. While debates about religion, society and government are not new, their surfacing in presidential campaigns tells us a lot about truth and virtue in American culture.
“Our national self-understanding has always had a religious inflection, not least because the most famous passage of the Declaration is explicitly religious: ‘All men are created equal and we our endowed by our creator,’” says Baylor University historian Dr. Thomas Kidd. The statement by its nature carries the implication of the Imago Dei; that we are made in the image of God. We are protected by language that shields us from an all powerful state. We inherit the right to flourish and to live out a purpose that has a higher calling than government and politics.
Civil religion in America has a long and rich tradition. From a critical point of view, the use of religion in a political context risks debasing true faith—instrumentalizing religious language as a tool of political power or, at least, reducing religion to a least-common-denominator approach that keeps everyone happy. But civil religion is also a marker of the strength of a nation’s faith life: a deeply religious culture is bound to express its faith through all of society’s institutions including the political. Presidential campaigns today reflect in many ways a more personal faith influenced by evangelical revivals of the 19th century known as the Second Great Awakening.
In America’s post-Watergate period of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter’s personal conversion story and “born again” statements positively resonated with many voters concerned with governmental deceit. Virtually every major presidential candidate since has talked personally about their faith on the campaign trail and presidents continue the long tradition of promoting a civil religion to help unite the country in times of crisis and thanksgiving.
While there has been an increase in God talk on the campaign trail, virtue and commitment to truth among the electorate have weakened. This is not a coincidence, as secularization and cultural wars have increased the belief that presidential candidates can rescue society. Today Americans are more apt to look for Messianic figures to save or heal the country, a problem of both the political right and left.
This was perhaps most evident in Obama’s 2008 campaign where the supposedly secular left embraced the Messianic overtones of the candidate. “Obama is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh,” said Ezra Klein of the Washington Post. At a campaign rally in South Carolina, Oprah Winfrey gushed about Obama, “I do believe he’s the one.” Not to be outdone Chris Matthews of MSNBC declared, “Obama comes along, and he seems to have the answers, this is the New Testament.”
Popular pro-Obama campaign videos fueling vague utopian platitudes like “We are the Ones,”  and “American Prayer”  allowed people to insert their passions and desires into the candidate. American entertainer Tichina Arnold praised Obama as “almost like a revival for the soul.”
This is a greater indictment on the culture than it is of Obama himself. Worries about religious imagery in campaigns and Messianic overtones are warranted especially if these religious expressions replace a vibrant spirituality in churches and houses of worship across America. If spiritual discernment and spiritual truths wane in America, the public is crippled in its capacity to discern political truths such as the proper and limited role of government.
The American Founders understood that when they replaced the King they were also replacing the idea of the “divine right of kings” and the monarch as moral leader of a country. They knew vibrant spirituality, virtue, and morals among the people would be needed for liberty to flourish. “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” declared George Washington in his farewell address.
It is appropriate for candidates to share their faith and continue in the tradition of asking God’s guidance for our country. It is more important that virtue and truth are carried by a populace to discern the limits of politics and the proclamation and laws of man.