Presidents and the Political Use of Religion
David O’Connell | Routledge | 2014
Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern
In God Wills: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion, political scientist David O’Connell struggles with the effectiveness of religious rhetoric in the modern presidency. Distinguishing between “community religious rhetoric”, that is to say the indescribable spiritual language intended to unify, and “coalitional” rhetoric intended to achieve a strategic objective or to reinforce a partisan position, he focuses his study on the latter. And he is, to put it lightly, not a fan.
As O’Connell writes, “religious rhetoric is of no use to a goal-oriented president. Consistently, public opinion fails to respond to the president’s religious appeals, the media reacts critically to his ideas and language, and the reception of his proposals in Congress is disappointing.
The author backs up his point with historical and even experimental means. In the realm of foreign policy, O’Connell argues, based on polls and editorial reactions to the religious rhetoric in President Eisenhower’s speeches about increased spending on foreign aid and mutual security, his efforts spiritual things have not borne fruit. Congress cut funding instead of increasing it. Ronald Reagan also tried to infuse the case with defensive spending. In an address to the United Jewish Appeal’s Young Leadership Conference in 1984, he said:
“Perhaps you remember Psalm 29 in which King David said, “The Lord will strengthen his people; the Lord will grant peace to his people.’ Well, today America once again recognizes that peace and strength are inseparable…Make no mistake: if we pay attention to those who would cripple America’s rebuilding agenda, we will undermine our own security and that of our closest friends, such as Israel, and I am not. ready to make it happen.
Alas, the press would have nothing to say about it. Reagan was criticized for attempting, as one editorial put it, to “justify the military position as morally correct”. While Reagan’s early years saw an increase in defense spending, despite the repeated use of witty language in his arguments, his second term saw Congress ensure that spending fell.
In the chapter entitled “Holy Warriors”, O’Connell shows how, even during military campaigns, the religion of the White House hinders the cause. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush both used religious rhetoric to argue for war, with the latter portraying the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as a battle of “good versus evil”—a dichotomy that was initially popular but dulled as the war in Iraq lost momentum and national support. “If religious rhetoric can’t help wartime presidents like the two Bushes,” O’Connell wonders, “when can it help any President?”
Other examples God willing the documents include Jimmy Carter’s attempts to resolve the energy crisis, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon (presented, in a speech, as being in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah), and Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Dressed in religious rhetoric, each was poorly received in the press, in public, and in Congress. The only exception conceded by O’Connell is Lyndon Johnson’s use of spiritual themes in the defense of civil rights. But, O’Connell argues, America was in a “honeymoon period” rallying to the new president after the assassination of JFK, and “there is little reason to suspect that in another universe, where religious arguments were not advanced, the result would have been arbitrary. different.”
At the end of his study, after conducting an experiment with students at Columbia University which also showed that religious rhetoric in coalition contexts is not convincing, the author concedes the obvious – in part. He notes that previous presidents, especially Abraham Lincoln, have used religious language to heal and unify. George Washington did the same (although O’Connell does not mention it), and the vast majority of American presidents quote the Bible in the inaugural address, to which O’Connell makes only a passing allusion. He notes that as Americans have become more secular, “the strength of religious rhetoric weakens over time.” To paraphrase Lincoln, if Americans don’t read the same Bible or pray to the same God, why bother calling on Him or Him?
In his conclusion, O’Connell notes (in what doesn’t sound like a lament but rather something to celebrate), “the language of religion eludes us. Religious rhetoric is the political language of our past, not our future. Strangely, the author admits in the last page of the book that he should have titled his book God does not want it.
Alas, what O’Connell fails to acknowledge is that beyond concocting a theoretical framework knowing its conclusions in advance while bracketing exceptions to its thesis, it is all concern about to what may emerge as a replacement for the unifying religion-tinged national narrative. These last years (God willing was published in 2014) have seen all manner of fervent political partisanship and social activism take hold in the space of American minds previously occupied by conventional faith. From cycling marketed as nourishing for the soul to pleas for forgiveness for historic sins, is America better off with leaders who steer the national conversation away from God, faith and tradition? That question, it seems, will be left to future presidents and the public.
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