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The God Strategy

David Domke and Kevin Coe
Oxford University Press 240pp

The God Strategy

On the evening of 17 July 1980 Ronald Reagan stood up to deliver his acceptance speech for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. The conference audience numbered thousands and was feeling raucous. Millions more watched on television.

Reagan rode the crowd with typical skill until the end when he seemed to hesitate. "I have thought of something that is not part of my speech," he said, "and worried over whether I should do it."

He was departing from his script (or, rather, the script that had been distributed to journalists).The atmosphere changed. 'I'll confess that -', his voice faltered momentarily, 'I've been a little afraid to suggest what I'm going to suggest.' He paused. 'I'm more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?' The entire hall went quiet for nearly 15 seconds before Reagan broke the silence: 'God bless America"'.

It was brilliant political theatre and the moment at which US politics changed.
Four years earlier, the devout Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter had entered the White House, bringing with him the support of millions of evangelicals and fundamentalists who had lain politically dormant for decades. Carter's perceived weakness and his determination to maintain a wall of separation between church and state disappointed the Christians whose vote had carried him into power. In 1980 everything was up for grabs. Reagan seized the moment and neither the Republican Party nor, latterly, the country, looked back.

The God Strategy does look back. By analysing the rhetoric, content and location of pretty much every presidential address, Christmas talk, major speech, and party platform since 1933 David Domke and Kevin Coe explain when, how and to what effect, God emerged onto the US political stage with such force.

Four signals, they argue, lie at the heat of the God strategy. Presidents act as political priests by speaking the language of the faithful. They fuse God and country by linking America with divine will. They embrace important religious symbols, practices and rituals and, finally, they engage in morality politics as understood and defined by the religious right.

None of these signals was exactly absent before 1980, but the scale of their use since then is truly awesome. On every account, post-1980 presidents have 'done God' considerably more than their predecessors. They invoke God more frequently, use religious language more liberally, link the nation to God or Providence more often, speak from religious platforms more commonly, proclaim religious celebration days more regularly, and continually genuflect to (if not necessarily doing much about) the moral issues favoured by the religious right.

Some findings are particularly telling. Before 1980, when presidents invoked God they tended to do so in petitionery terms ('May God…'). After 1980, they did so in prophetic terms ('I believe God has…'). Presidential Christmas addresses since 1980 reference Christ on average 15 times more often than earlier ones. Carter, the president to whom modern US theo-politics can be traced, 'did God' less than any other president since 1933, mentioning Christ in just one of his four Christmas talks.

Domke and Coe do not speculate on the authenticity of the post-1980 presidents' faith nor on the extent to which they have honoured their half-promises to the religious right. Nor do they dwell much on why evangelicals and fundamentalists emerged from political isolation in the 1970s. To that extent, the book does not say anything really new. However, it does contain a sting in its tail, and one that is quite unexpected.

Given the success of the God strategy you can see why non-believers and, indeed, many believers accuse US politics of being held hostage by narrow and divisive sectarian interests. The book's concluding chapter, however, shows that the moderate mainstream is as crucial to electoral success as the religious right.

'The God Strategy's raison d'être may be the rise of religious conservatives as a political force,' the authors conclude, 'but the success of this approach hinges just as much on religious moderates. If a Democrat attracts them or a Republican holds them, that candidate wins. Whoever fails to woo them delivers a concession speech.' Thus when George Bush Snr failed to distance himself sufficiently from Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others in 1992, and when his son used the first veto of his presidency to restrict funding on stem-cell research in 2006, both were roundly criticised and electorally punished. 'The gold rule of today's US politics,' the authors explain, is 'exhibit faith, but don't be too strident or nakedly partisan in doing so.'

This will surprise Britons used to stories of sinister fundamentalists using presidents like marionettes. But US politics is complex, and becoming more so. When the devout, but Democratic, Barack Obama appears on stage alongside the impeccably evangelical Rick Warren, as on World AIDS Day 2006, and as the authors discuss in their epilogue, something big is happening. The theo-political age that Reagan inaugurated on the evening of 17 July 1980 is not passing. But it might be changing.

Nick Spencer