Theodore Roosevelt declared, “The White House is a bully pulpit.” Indeed, the pulpit of the American presidency is as influential as any pulpit in the world, and all presidents have used their office to speak out on contemporary issues. While that pulpit has not generally been a platform for religious pronouncements, candidates during the 2008 presidential campaign are speaking out to communicate spiritual content in unprecedented ways.
People who heretofore have disdained religion suddenly are using the presidential campaign “bully pulpit” in order to gain an advantage among those they perceive to be highly motivated by moral issues. Politics, as the saying goes, makes strange bedfellows; –– candidates from the left, both Republican and Democratic, are going after the same voting bloc, those millions of voting evangelicals who go to the booth to cast their votes for like-minded public servants with a strong emphasis on the moral dimension, if not Biblical stance, as it relates to the pivotal issues.
At the same time that some politicos are claiming that the religious right is passé and never did have the electoral power that some claim that it had, candidates are vying with each other to climb into bed with the voting demographic generally conceded to have put George W. Bush in the White House. With none of the Republican candidates thus far having caught fire with the religious right, the values voters, candidates from both major political parties are hiring consultants to help them craft a message that will appeal to evangelicals. With slight changes in rhetoric, candidates can spout religious-sounding themes that they think will seduce voters from the religious right. They are blithely unaware how often their synthetic faith-talk is slightly off-key and creates dissonance in the ears of those who know the tune. Contrary to the presumptions of elites inside the beltway, evangelicals are neither stupid nor tone-deaf.
Strange, at a time when the left wants to build higher barricades between church and state, today’s candidates for public office are working overtime to convince the public that they have church “cred.” Voters have always put trustworthiness at the top of the necessary qualifications for president; they ask, “Whom do you trust?” A candidate’s faith is often taken, though not without error, as a good indicator of his or her trustworthiness. Some voters even put the candidates’ credentials through a filter of faith. Others examine the candidate’s worldview and stance on specific issues. Whether it is true or not, candidates in this election cycle are convinced that having at least a tinge of the devout will help deliver the vote.