Andy Hogue: Stumping God: Reagan, Carter, and the Invention of a Political Faith

Dr. Andy Hogue expert

Religious appeals by presidential candidates are now common, and audiences to whom those appeals are directed are often powerful political players. In his new book, Andrew Hogue, Ph.D., a lecturer in Baylor University's department of political science, explains how that happened, how it has functioned and how to mix religion with politics in a courteous way.

His book - Stumping God: Reagan, Carter, and the Invention of a Political Faith (Baylor University Press, 2012) - uses exclusive interviews and primary sources to trace various streams of influence that converged in the 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and John B. Anderson charted new territory by appealing overtly to voters' religious sensibilities and making public their religious commitments.

Q: What do you expect will happen as far as religious rhetoric in the upcoming election?

A: Romney's Mormonism was a big deal in the primaries because evangelicals - a large portion of primary voters in a lot of states - have historically been distrustful of Mormons. If the voters who care the most about a candidate's faith are skeptical of Romney's faith, it's no surprise that his Mormonism became a big issue. But Romney won, and given the alternative of Obama, a lot of evangelicals have decided it better to coalesce around a Mormon than a Democrat. What we're seeing so far is a bit of a truce between the two candidates because in the eyes of a lot of religious voters, both have religious skeletons in the closet-Romney with his Mormonism and Obama with the Jeremiah Wright flap that was so prominent in the last election, as well as the rampant misunderstandings about his faith. So neither candidate seems eager to play up religion. But that truce won't last long, not with so much outside spending in this campaign. Plenty of groups out there are eager to pull whatever skeletons they can find from the other candidate's closet. Then, perhaps, the candidates will be forced to respond. Given that both are such unconventional candidates, it's difficult to anticipate what form their religious rhetoric will take.

Q: You urge readers to "move beyond the haze of rhetorical appeals that cloud the political process." How?

A: Well, we have to keep in mind what presidential elections are really all about. Bob Dole said in 1996 that a presidential election is a "mirror held up to America, a measurement of who we are." I don't want to discount the symbolic nature of presidential elections; this is the one and only time that we all vote for someone or something . . . We Americans are a religious people, and it makes good sense that that's reflected . . . But we have to keep in mind exactly what it is we're voting for, which is a person to fill an office that is constrained by what the Constitution allows.

Q: What are some examples of how religious rhetoric has made things cloudy?

A: John Kerry, when running against Bush in 2004, took the President to task over what Kerry saw as Bush's failures to act in a Christian manner. Kerry said that if he were President, he would act as a Christian is supposed to act and care for the sick and feed the hungry. That's great. Most Christians I know are all for those things. But there's some real complexity in that when it comes to national policy, and according to the Constitution, the President is just one player. To listen to some candidates, you'd think that ending abortion or putting prayer back in schools is as simple as awarding them your vote. That's a gross misreading of how our political system works.

The other way religious rhetoric often clouds the process is by creating a sort of false choice. Many people have the perception that it's only Republican candidates who have spoken religiously. In fact, it was Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, who kicked this whole thing off.

What's happened is that Republican candidates have, consciously or not, adopted the basic religious strategy and rhetorical forms assembled by Reagan in 1980, while Democrats, with a couple of exceptions, have basically done the same with Carter's . . . For Republicans this has meant, among other things, asserting public acts of piety, intentionally selecting and endorsing religious audiences, featuring certain "culture war" issues and raising the stakes of what we might normally consider secular issues to have a spiritual significance.

Meanwhile, for Democratic candidates, this has also meant featuring one's own personal devotion and religious piety. In addition, it has typically meant offering religious justifications to positions that poll well with the Democratic faithful-many of whom are religious. These justifications often come on issues like civil rights, religious tolerance, human rights, healthcare, the environment, and social justice. . . The presidential candidates from the two parties are both using religion to talk past one another. The only place where there's real agreement, it seems, is on the need to be pious-not surprising given that polls continue to show Americans' strong preferences for a religious president.

Q: Why might the dynamics of religion and politics be undergoing significant change?

A: You have to understand where we've been. My main argument is that Republican candidates have fallen into the pattern set by Reagan, and Democrats the pattern set by Carter. The 2008 election sort of upended that. First, the GOP selected as its nominee arguably its most moderate candidate in a generation in John McCain. His relationship with the religious right was pretty rocky, having once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "corrupting influences on religion and politics" and "agents of intolerance." McCain never systematically reached out to religious conservatives like his predecessors had. . . Likewise with Obama, but for different reasons. Obama actually followed the basic Carter strategy, but then he stole some pages from the Republicans, endorsing religious groups' political activities, saying that a lot of Democrats had been wrong for a long time by "dismissing religion in the public square." Significantly, those changes also coincide with high-profile scandals in recent years that have tarnished for many voters the Republican brand as the "family values" party. But keep in mind that the changes are not just about the candidates. They are also due to some shifting elements among voters. The generation that invented the religious right is now passing the torch to a generation that doesn't see the world in terms quite so black and white. I don't see a full-scale exodus from the Republican Party for a lot of religious voters anytime soon . . . But a lot of evangelicals are interested in things like the environment and human rights and social justice that Democrats have been championing, even on religious grounds, for a long time.

Q: Do you think religion should have a role in presidential politics? If so, how?

A: In the book I argue that religion will continue to have a major role, and that by and large it should continue to have some role. But where I'm cautioning us is on the question of how. The first thing is that we have to do is stop using politics to fight a culture war. We have to acknowledge that politics occurs downstream of culture, meaning that if one really wants to shape the moral fabric of our culture and our country, politics really isn't the best venue to do that. It's a venue, but not the best one. Likewise, we need to understand the nature of the American political system. By intentional design, political change in the American context requires consensus, and if it's not there, it requires compromise. . . We need to adjust what we expect out of politics, instead turning some of that attention to changing culture and civil society . . . That starts with voters. The candidates won't change until we do.

To interview Dr. Hogue, contact Terry Goodrich, 254-710-3321, or the Office of Media Communications at (254) 710-1961.