Kevin Coe, a doctoral student in the department of speech communication at the UI, specializes in political discourse, news media and public opinion. With coauthor David Domke, he has just published a book titled "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America" (Oxford). The book tracks the strategic use of religion in American politics, particularly the presidency, over the past eight decades, and demonstrates that religion has had an unprecedented role in U.S. politics since 1980. Coe spoke with News Bureau humanities editor Andrea Lynn about his research and the issue of religion in the 2008 presidential campaign.
What role is religion playing in the 2008 campaign?
The major candidates on both sides of the partisan aisle are using a demonstrably public form of religion to attract voters. They're regularly mentioning God and religious faith, quoting scripture, speaking at churches and to religious organizations and framing many of their policy positions in overtly religious terms. This approach is what my colleague, David Domke, and I call "the God strategy." We label it a strategy because, even though these candidates are likely people of genuine religious faith, how and when they choose to talk about their faith is necessarily a political calculation - one they take very seriously. Every major candidate has advisors whose primary job is to figure out how to effectively appeal to people of faith.
Is the role religion is playing in politics today similar to the role it's played in the past?
Politicians and political candidates have always talked about God and faith, but what is happening today is unprecedented in modern history. Our research shows that the relationship between religion and politics in America changed in 1981 with the election of Ronald Reagan, and has yet to change back. Across numerous measures and thousands of public communications, we found that politicians today engage in substantially more public religiosity than did their predecessors and that this religiosity has a much more partisan tone. The 2008 campaign is the culmination of two and a half decades of the God strategy, and that's why it sounds and feels so different from what people are used to.
How successful have the major candidates been in using religion in this way?
They've had mixed success. Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama have probably been the most effective, in part because their task is easier. Both have backgrounds that make their engagement with religion seem authentic - Huckabee as a former pastor and Obama as a community organizer who worked with religious groups. Others have faced greater challenges. Mitt Romney, in particular, has had a difficult campaign. As a Republican candidate, he's expected to emphasize his faith. However, many conservative evangelicals hold negative views of Mormonism, which has led Romney to deemphasize the particulars of his religion. It's been a difficult tightrope for him to walk, one made even more difficult by the fact that Huckabee has become a frontrunner.
Do you think all of this is good for American democracy?
No, I think it's quite bad for democracy. The nation's founders were wise enough to know that religion and politics are at their best when they function largely independent from one another. It's that wisdom that led them to include in the Constitution a prohibition on religious tests for public office. What the omnipresence of the God strategy has created is a de facto religious test. This is a disservice to the candidates and to the nation. Democracy is at its best when good candidates run for office and the finest of those candidates has a chance to win. When the God strategy is a necessity, candidates who can't or won't employ its tactics will not run, let alone win. We've created an environment that essentially excludes those who feel that faith is a deeply private matter, those who believe that religion can be practiced without being preached, those who observe a faith other than Christianity, and those who choose not to believe in a higher power. That environment is not good for democracy, nor is it good for religion.