The overt mixture of politics and religion has a habit of catching pundits off-guard.
“Faith and government shouldn’t be as cozy as they are in this country,” The New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote on February 14, commenting primarily on former Texas governor Rick Perry's call for prayer to combat wildfires in 2012.
“Politicians in general, and Republicans in particular, shouldn’t genuflect as slavishly as they do, not in public. They’re vying to be senators and presidents. They’re not auditioning to be ministers and missionaries.”
But the intersection of faith and public policy — prayer and politics, if you will — is a little more complicated than simply governors and presidents “auditioning to become ministers.” In fact, history has a lot to say about the role of religion in public life, principally that the faith of politicians has often acted to comfort the American people during trying times.
Bruni isn’t the first person to express discomfort at the sight of politicians being open about their faith, and he certainly won’t be the last. With Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement last week that he will be running for president, columnists, analysts and pretty much anyone with a say in the political horse race that is the 2016 election have weighed in on how Cruz is leaning on religion to help shape his campaign.
“Ted Cruz’s fervent evangelical faith, however sincere, does nothing to advance his credibility as a contender for the nomination,” The Daily Beast’s Jacob Lupfer wrote on Tuesday.
Lupfer, like plenty of other pundits, assumes that Cruz is using his evangelical faith as political leverage — something Lupfer doesn’t think will pan out. And while that may or may not be the case, there is another, more historically grounded reason (as opposed to one focused exclusively on the political science behind campaigns) that explains why Cruz — as well as President Obama and former president Jimmy Carter — have relied on their religious sides while politicking.
Why politicians use religion
According to Political scientist David O’Connell, it is crisis, not political convenience, that more often than not brings out religion in politicians.
“When opinion is falling, when a presidency is threatened, when the country’s fate seems to rest on the resolution of a problem, that is when we see instrumental religious rhetoric appear,” O’Connell argued in his dissertation for Columbia University, which served as the inspiration for his book “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion.”
That’s where Cruz’s now famous appearance at Liberty University comes in. On the same day that Cruz launched his campaign, Rasmussen Reports released poll results that found 64 percent of Americans believe “the nation is headed down the wrong track.” Furthermore, on March 12, Gallup released a poll that found “Dissatisfaction with government” is ranked as the “most important problem facing this country today,” beating out the economy, healthcare, ISIS and “moral decline.”
That feeling of instability and unease reflected in the polls may be why, in his announcement at Liberty University, Cruz made multiple references to times of unrest that were triumphantly overcome by strong leaders who trusted in God.
“Imagine it’s 1776 and we were watching the 54 signers of the Declaration of Independence stand together and pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to igniting the promise of America,” he said. Cruz also evoked the eras of Ronald Reagan and (interestingly enough) Franklin Roosevelt.
While reminiscing on what he believes to be the chief accomplishments of the Reagan administration, Cruz reminded his listeners that at the time, Reagan’s plans “would have seemed unimaginable, and yet, with the grace of God, that’s exactly what happened.”
Cruz’s appeal to “the grace of God” to guide the nation through trying times isn’t new, and it isn’t particularly partisan.
The case of Jimmy Carter
Take, for example, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, though the peanut farmer and frequent Sunday school teacher was about as far away from Cruz as a politician could be on pretty much every policy issue, he too relied on his religious convictions to help voters feel that he was a man of character who could steer the ship in turbulent waters.
“The culture of corruption surrounding the Nixon administration made Americans receptive to a candidate willing to talk about his faith,” Randall Balmer wrote in “Redeemer,” his spiritual biography of Jimmy Carter.
According to Balmer, the feeling of betrayal after the Watergate scandal left many Americans yearning for stronger ethics in the White House. “Voters sought some reading on a candidate’s moral compass,” Balmer argued, and “Carter obliged” by speaking frequently about his role as Sunday School teacher and elaborating on how his theological beliefs influenced his politics.
According to Balmer, while Carter’s open approach to discussing his religion didn’t sit well with everyone, “many other voters found his probity reassuring.”
Something similar might be said of President Obama’s use of Leviticus 19:34 while announcing the executive action giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
"Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger,” Obama said during the speech. “For we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too."
By quoting the Old Testament, Obama signaled to the American people that he believes such a strong administrative move to be grounded in a moral ethic that extends beyond just the here and now. Referencing divine inspiration — or at least divine influence — can make bold moves from the executive office seem grounded in something that voters can relate to.
The case of Lincoln
There are plenty of other examples of legislators relying on their belief in God, whether Christian or otherwise, as inspiration during trying times.
While some may argue that Abraham Lincoln’s reference to “the gracious favor of Almighty God” in the Emancipation Proclamation can be written off as typical religious rhetoric of antebellum political discourse, his second inaugural address is unquestionably steeped in overt religious imagery.
“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged,” Lincoln said during the address. By this time in Lincoln’s political career, he clearly saw the abolition of slavery and reconciliation between North and South as far more than just compassionate politics, but as the will and force of God.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” Lincoln famously said at the conclusion of the address, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln’s address is consistently listed among the most important inaugurals in the history of the office, and it is also typically viewed as one of the most overtly religious. Author Garry Wills goes so far as to call it Lincoln's “theodicy of the Civil War,” meaning it was his explanation of why God allowed the catastrophes of the war to occur.
The Civil War was arguably the most tumultuous period in the history of the American republic, which is why it is no surprise to historians that the typically agnostic Lincoln turned to a higher power to comfort not only the people, but himself toward the end of his presidency.
Why the public responds to religion
The belief that an appeal to faith has a calming influence on the public isn’t just wishful thinking by politicians.
In a report published last September, the Pew Research Center found that more than 70 percent of Americans believe religion is losing influence in public life, and they wish it wasn’t.
“The most simplistic interpretation of this data is that people who care about religion don't think candidates are performing their godliness enough on the campaign trail, and they don't think their church leaders are engaging enough with current events from the pulpit,” The Atlantic’s Emma Green wrote in September.
“But there's another possible way to look at these numbers, one that's less about political performance and more about the changing relationship between religion and politics in modernity.”
According to Green, who cites the philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ comments on secularism in Europe, Americans may simply be yearning for religion to “make a meaningful contribution to clarifying controversial questions of principle.”
Whether or not Americans are seeking the same sense of divine security, or clarity, they were during the Civil War is yet to be seen. But it seems as if Ted Cruz is about to find out.
JJ Feinauer is a writer and web producer for Deseret News National. Email: [email protected], Twitter: jjfeinauer.