We talk a lot about the corruption of our electoral process by overtly religious politicking. The daily headlines provide plenty of fodder for discussion; but for a more long-term view of this trend, we were joined by Dr. Brian Kaylor, author of Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics. There are some very interesting ideas raised during the conversation, including a historical perspective on Welton’s suspicion that the overt inclusion of a candidate’s faith in his or her campaign stems less from conviction and more fron consultants.
Dr. Kaylor is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Dr. Brian Kaylor
[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: The book is Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, and its author, Dr. Brian Kaylor joins us now on State of Belief Radio. Dr. Kaylor, while we’re confessin’, this interview should have happened a long time ago – but I’m glad you’re finally here, and I welcome you to State of Belief Radio. [DR. BRIAN KAYLOR, GUEST]: Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here. [WG]: You know, I was thinking – in looking through your book, and reading in it – “confessional” everything is kind of “in”: “confessional preaching” has been in a while, I know I read a piece this last week on “confessional poetry,” “confessional leadership style”… But politics? I mean, that seems to be different. Tell our folks listening, first of all, what do you mean by “confessional politics”? [BK]: Yeah, when I talk about confessional politics, it’s what I describe – the way religious rhetoric is used in modern presidential campaigns; and the argument that I’m making is that from 1976 through 2008 – when I wrote the book, and I’ll argue now that through 2012, so far – we see that religious rhetoric is being used in a very different way than it had been in the decades prior to 1976. [WG]: And what is that way? [BK]: Right, so the four aspects of what I call confessional politics is that candidates are being much more testimonial, that they’re literally confessing their private religious beliefs, confessing their Christian salvation experience and when we’re looking at the top candidates – the successful candidates – it very much is a Christian-Evangelical type of salvation experience they’re talking about. They’re also using religious political rhetoric in ways that are much more sectarian and partisan than we have seen in previous decades among winning candidates; and they’re doing what I call a liturgical type of rhetoric, in that, instead of using references to God and kind of a ceremonial sense – just, kind of, garnish, if you will – it’s instead almost like they’re acting like our worship leaders. And so this is what I mean by this idea of being “confessional.” [WG]: Well, Brian, I don’t know exactly how to ask this question without showing a bias, so I’ll just show the bias. I think this came from political strategists more than I do think it came from religious convictions. What do you think about that? [BK]: I think that’s a fair assessment. I think there was, perhaps, a little bit of sincerity. You know, I actually peg a lot of this at the start. I peg a lot of this, the rise of confessional politics, to the Sunday School teacher-peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, and I honestly think that he was, kind of, just being himself – and then his strategists and advisors realized: this is resonating, in the, kind of, a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era, where the American public was looking for a squeaky-clean moral person. They realized, “Something’s happening here, this is working.” And so they went from discouraging him from talking about his faith to actually encouraging him; and then – whenever somebody wins the presidency, four years later, everybody does what they think was the reason they won; and so the irony with Carter is that he was out-God-talked four years later by someone who rarely went to church. At this point, then, confessional politics was successful for both parties; and I think from that point on, it very much has been driven by polling and strategy in many, many cases. [WG]: And you know, I’m of the opinion that that might not have worked in that situation had Ronald Reagan not been a good actor. [BK]: It’s true. He was born for politics as it was entering the TV era. He was, ironically, when he was on stage with the politicians, he made them all look like bad actors, because he was born to be on TV. [WG]: Well, and I didn’t actually mean that as negatively as it sounded, because we’ve seen it done so poorly that it’s obviously fake, and you can tell the difference between the two right up front. Now, there is a downside to confessional politics, as I see it, but I’m interested, again, in your assessment. When you open up your life and begin to talk, say, as George W. Bush did, about alcoholism in his life and all of that, don’t you run the risk that that will impress some people as honesty, and other people will say, “Well, that person doesn’t need to be elected, if all that happened”? [BK]: Yeah, there is that danger of: how far do you open up? And there’s also the danger that once you start to open up, how do you then draw the line when people press you to open up even further? And that’s something, you know, George W. Bush being a good example, you know, was pushed about: did he smoke marijuana? And of course, we heard in years since from one of his religious political advisors, Doug Wead, has said that Bush did admit to him that he had, but he didn’t think that would help him to win the presidency; and that’s an interesting connection, because Doug Wead is now helping advise Ron Paul to weave Scripture into his speeches, and reach out to the conservative-evangelical community. [WG]: Brian, can you take this same principle of confessional politics and apply it to other elected officeholders, and I don’t just mean John Boehner’s tears. [BK]: I do think that it does trickle down some; I mean, I’ve done a more thorough analysis at the presidential level, but I do think we see some of this happening at lower levels of politics – in some states more than other states. I think that there are some of your Bible belt states where this is definitely going to resonate well in other elections. I think, for instance, the gubernatorial election in Alabama this past election cycle, Robert Bentley was a great example of someone using confessional politics at a state level – and used it to buy some success. [WG]: I think the scrutiny of Herman Cain’s past dealings with women and subordinates was relevant to a presidential campaign. I don’t always think that’s true of some of those kinds of traits in an individual; in this instance it was different because of the way he handled it. I do think that the relentless focus on candidates’ religious backgrounds and convictions is way beyond what’s acceptable. So is there a middle ground that you can describe – if the mainstream media is the arbiter of what gets attention, aren’t they always going to gravitate towards tabloidization? [BK]: I’m afraid that in our current media market and environment they are. And I think part of that is: post-Watergate, every Washington journalist wanted to be the next Woodward or Bernstein; and so, digging into the private lives, looking for that scandal, to take down a politician – it’s not that our politicians are having affairs today and they didn’t use to. They used to, and journalists even knew about it. People just didn’t care enough to talk about it. And I also think, when you look at news media in general, we are, unfortunately, going more and more toward – you said tabloid entertainment, or some people called infotainment – is definitely, unfortunately, what gets the ratings right now; and so we’ve really seen a loss of the hard news, credible news focus cycles that we used to have. I think we’re going to continue to see this focus on the tabloid side of politics. [WG]: Dr. Kaylor, let’s get very specific. Do you think of a particular case that stands out for you as one where this principle of confessional politics actually damaged a campaign or a term in office? [BK]: Well, when it comes to the general elections for the last three decades, by that point we see candidates are pretty smart, pretty vetted, and are doing a good job – and in each of the elections from 1976 to 2008, I argue that the one who talked the most about God and quoted Scripture the most won. In the primaries that’s not always the case, and I do think that there have been some candidates that have taken it too far in the primaries. Mike Huckabee used confessional politics quite well to launch himself in Iowa, but he also got into some hot water a few times, such as when he was questioning some beliefs about Mormonism, which is obviously still an issue with Romney running again; and I think Rick Perry, most recently, with his ad claiming that Obama was waging a war on Christianity – the intense reaction that that got, and the large number of dislikes on Youtube versus the few likes that his video got, I think, showed that it was a step too far. And so in the primaries, I think, we do see candidates take it too far. But by the time we get to a general election candidate, we see the one who’s using confessional politics the most effectively is the one that’s winning. [WG]: Let me turn what we’ve just been talking about a little bit and ask you: from the public point of view, has a candidate’s use of confessional politics perhaps averted a disaster for the public by seeing that someone is way too extreme to be the President of the United States. [BK]: That’s a good question, and I have to kind of separate the general election from the primary election, which I’ve done, when we talk about this, because in the general election – I’m not sure that we see that, because we’re not seeing a candidate losing because of their use of confessional politics. In the primaries, where we are seeing – particularly on the Republican side, post Pat Robertson’s impressive run during the 1988 campaign, in large part because of its use of confessional politics, we are seeing some candidates are clearly going so far that people are putting the brakes on it. Alan Keyes, who got, I believe, third place in the Iowa caucuses when he was running for President in 2000, is a good example of someone who really, kind of, stunned a lot within the party and is continuing to stun a lot of people now as he continues to push the birther argument against Barack Obama. And, I think, in this current campaign cycle we’ve seen the issue of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, both, that have made some seriously startling comments; and I think they were both, kind of, trying to out-God each other to the point that they took it too far. And in Bachmann’s case, particularly, I think, that’s related to her decline in the polls. Perry was hurt more by his debate performances; but I think Bachmann, particularly, alarmed a lot of conservative Republicans that were looking for someone who’s not named Mitt Romney but thought, “Ooh, that’s not going to actually win at a general election.” [WG]: Yeah. Well, I think playing out the reality that you describe, I mean, after the Bush-Gore campaign, the Republicans, pretty much, identify themselves as the party of God, and criticize Democrats for not being able to talk God talk and the kinds of things that you’re talking about; and then it must have registered with them, because the Democrats began to bring in consultants to tell them how to talk about religion. So I think what you’ve written about is a fascinating topic, and yours is a fascinating book. A lot of trends in politics, as you know, are cyclical. Do you think this is cyclical? Are we going to move beyond confessional politics, or is it here to stay? [BK]: I think that it can eventually be broken. When I was first wrapping up the book, it was before, really, the 2012 election – it was before it got really into full steam – and so at that point I kind of said, “Ehh, we’ll see what happens.” But at this point I don’t think 2012 is the election that breaks that cycle yet. Unfortunately I don’t think that we’re seeing a strong move away from that. Clearly on the Republican side, we’re seeing the candidates all almost fighting over each other to be God’s candidate, and half of them claim God called them to run; and Obama has been, also – just like he did in the ‘08 campaign – has been ramping up his religious rhetoric; the Democratic National Committee recently hired, for the first time in a few years – have a religious political strategist now to help them reach out to the faith community. So I think we’re definitely going to see, throughout this campaign, at least a continued focus. It’s hard to say when the end would happen, but the rise of confessional politics was so dramatic. In 1972, George McGovern was working so hard for people not to know that he has been a minister for a couple of years that he even tried to hide photos, because he thought it would hurt him. And then just four years later, Carter’s helped that he was a Sunday school teacher. And so things can shift pretty dramatically in politics, but I don’t see it happening this year. [WG]: The book is Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, and I am very happy that the author, Dr. Brian Kaylor, was able to join us today. Dr. Kaylor serves as Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University; he’s Editorial Assistant for Churchnet, as well as Contributing Editor for Ethics Daily. He blogs at www.forgodsakeshutup.blogspot.com. That’s not as hostile as I made it sound; a previous book of his had the compelling title For God’s Sake Shut Up! Lessons for Christians on How to Speak Effectively and When to Remain Silent. Everybody I know that should read that book forgot to read the part about when to remain silent.
Dr. Kaylor, I know that book came out in 2007, but it seems more relevant now than ever, and I think we’re going to have to have you back on the show to talk about it.[BK]: Thanks for having me.