Religious freedom, separation of church and state, and political pandering may be as American as apple pie, but at one time or another each can provoke a mighty indigestion in the electorate, especially when it comes to how we resolve issues and choose leaders. In an interview with the Tribune-Herald, Andy Hogue, 32, director of Baylor University’s Civic Education & Community Service Program, lecturer of political science, author of “Stumping God: Reagan, Carter and the Invention of a Political Faith” (Baylor Press, 2012) and latest member of the Trib Board of Contributors, talks about how the candidates facing off in the pivotal 1980 presidential election in many ways defined how we mix politics, governance and religion in the present day.
Q The topic of mixing faith and politics seems an especially combustible one, given this day and age. Politicians are quick to embrace issues such as abortion or prayer in school as divine causes, allowing them to condemn opponents as “forces of evil,” as we saw Texas Right to Life leadership brand pro-choice forces in last week’s huge fracas in Austin. What prompted you to take up such an explosive topic for a book?
A You know, it’s interesting. I’m about the least confrontational person you’ll meet, a peacemaker by disposition. But I like your description of this topic — combustible. As I think about it, it’s really interesting that the topics I’m most drawn to, as a teacher and as scholar, take on that character — things like race, gender, class and religion. Mix those things up in the political sphere, and it’s a combustible cocktail. But maybe that’s exactly why I like it. It seems, local newspapers notwithstanding, that our political discussions are so fragmented and insulated. Texas Right to Life can call reproductive rights advocates “evil” because it’s easy to do so, and it helps raise support or money. Sarah Palin can do her bit about the president “palling around with terrorists” for the same reason. Politics these days seems to be so much about tossing red meat to the base and launching grenades at the opposition. I guess my hope is, in whatever tiny ways I can, to try to increase understanding, decrease hostility and grease the wheels of more enlightened conversation. And hopefully that gets us to a better place than where we are now.
Q Many of us recall Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter some decades ago, including Carter’s famous 1976 Playboy interview about lusting in his heart and Reagan’s broader, faith-based vernacular in 1980 and beyond. The title of your book strongly suggests they each set the template for how the two major parties now employ faith and religion in soliciting voters.
A Well, part of my argument is that the things Reagan and Carter did in those years set the tone for how presidential candidates especially, but other office-seekers as well, campaigned for office for a generation to come. We have to keep in mind some of the context that brought about this religious talk. Large swaths of Americans were hoping to recover from that thing called “the Sixties,” and many, whatever their persuasions, distrusted their government’s credibility in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam.
The economy sagged stubbornly, and the Soviets gave us the impression that they were winning the Cold War. In this respect, it’s easy to see why the situation was ripe for a new kind of appeal. But perhaps the most important thing, which few realized at the time, was the fact that evangelical Christianity was growing in leaps and bounds and coming off the sidelines to enter American public life for the first time since the 1920s. Many of these evangelical Christians were answering a clarion call — or Jerry Falwell’s call — to stop America’s “moral decay,” which to them dealt in matters of personal morality like sexuality, reproduction and so on. The “traditional family” needed protection, if that kind of talk sounds at all familiar today. But keep in mind what had been going on for years before this rise of the religious right. Many Americans, and often on the basis of their mainline Protestant beliefs, had been trying to stop a different kind of moral decay by fighting for civil equality for African-Americans, by enacting social programs to lift millions from poverty, by speaking prophetically against the proliferation of weapons that could destroy humanity. I say all of this to give a sense of the two rather distinct tracks on which many Americans were engaging political life on religious terms. And it’s largely on the basis of these two tracks that candidates started to appeal for votes using religion. The thing Reagan and Carter held in common, and which all presidential candidates continue to hold in common, is the sense of personal piety they try to convey.
We seem unwilling to elect someone who isn’t devout, so they all try to show us their devotion. Differences between the two approaches are based largely on the two tracks I just described. Republican candidates will use religious justifications to deal with issues related to personal morality and will often employ a narrative that the Puritans invented, which tells us how far we’ve drifted from the original design of how things are supposed to be. Democratic candidates, who have usually been just as apt to appeal in religious terms, often do so on issues related to the social gospel — poverty, civil rights, human rights and so forth. They also usually soften their religious appeals with calls for tolerance and respect for diversity.
Q Can you think of leaders in either political party who best represent these approaches today?
A I’d say that you still see it all the time. [President Obama], for instance, has spoken at length on campaign stops about the saving power of Jesus Christ and his personal conversion to Christianity. When he came out in favor of same-sex marriage, what was his primary justification? The Golden Rule, taken from the Gospel of Matthew. For Republican office-seekers and officeholders, these appeals are of course more frequent, and it’s hard to start naming names without naming just about all of them. What Carter and Reagan invented, even if it has undergone some changes, is still alive and well.
Q I get letters to the editor from people in Central Texas convinced members of the Democratic Party are destined to hell, with no stop in purgatory. Why is this view so prevalent? Are Republicans just better at evangelical outreach than Democrats?
A Gosh, how do I answer that as delicately as I can? I mentioned before that Democratic candidates are prone to speak in religious terms, then soften that speech with an appeal to tolerance and diversity. At the level of national politics, many Republican candidates do this, too. But polls indicate that people who operate under fixed moral absolutes are far more likely to find themselves in the Republican tent than the Democratic tent. That’s not judgment but fact. When this plays out in local affairs, in places like Central Texas that don’t have as much religious and political diversity as other places, these sorts of absolutes can come out with a vengeance. I have to trust that those who condemn Democrats to hell are a very small but evidently vocal minority. And I suppose all I’ll say in response is that I hope my Democrat friends aren’t destined for hell.
Q Your book suggests that Americans aren’t necessarily wrong to view politics through a prism of faith but that as citizens we have certain duties to recognize that this is, first and foremost, a secular government founded on strictly constitutional values, not necessarily 100 percent religious perspectives. What should each person who views himself or herself as religious take into account when considering complex political issues and candidates who may not always be what they seem to be?
A While some will disagree with me, I think it can be wholly appropriate to bring one’s religious beliefs to bear in the political process. Many great heroes like Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Fannie Lou Hamer did this beautifully. But I always urge caution. The main caution is that we have to keep in perspective what politics and government are designed to do and what they’re capable of doing. Many use faith to fight a political culture war, to have their religious doctrine affixed to public policy, and I think this can be misguided. I always tell students to remember that politics happens downstream of culture. If you want to shape the moral fabric of our culture and our country, politics really isn’t the best venue to do that. It’s a venue, but not a very good one. We also need to understand the nature of the American political system. By intentional, constitutional design, political change in the American context requires consensus and, if it’s not there, it requires compromise. That’s hard for a lot of people to do when it comes to religious belief. So what I say is this: Imagine what would happen if people of faith backed off the culture war and brought their good energy to bear in local affairs, not to compel certain behavior by individuals but instead to make Waco a better place — to invest in our public schools, to create jobs with a living wage and health benefits, to ensure that neighbors are cared for rather than abandoned. That sort of faith in action is far more compelling to me.
Q The other day Sen. Ted Cruz was at First Baptist Church of Dallas, encouraging congregation members to stand up for Christian principles and calling for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. I can see where an issue such as prayer in school or abortion might come down to one’s faith, but can we expect to see things like taxes and climate fall more and more into the spiritual realm as well? How can, say, climate change be a faith-based issue?
A That’s a great question without a perfect answer. I think we have to respect that for a lot of people, all matters in this world are matters of faith, and that’s OK. So human-induced climate change, for instance, falls into the matrix of caring for God’s good creation. Tax schemes, likewise, are an indication of our priorities, so for a lot of social gospelers in the FDR mold, a moral society is a just society, not one tilted to advantage the wealthy. But just because I might view those as matters of faith, the conversation shouldn’t stop there. Whatever our motivations for advocating an issue, let’s look for ways to open our dialogue and look for consensus. Let’s not shut out people simply because they engage from a faith perspective or a nonfaith perspective.
Q It seems we Americans have a great deal of difficulty deciding whether the Founding Fathers really wanted a religious stamp on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. How much religion would have been too much for people such as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin?
A Well, we have to keep in mind that Washington wasn’t Jefferson, and Jefferson wasn’t Franklin. And one of those — Jefferson — didn’t even have a hand in writing the Constitution. In the age of Glenn Beck, we have this tendency to view the Founders as a monolithic group, but that’s so far from reality. Many of their divisions, in fact, were probably much starker than ours. Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton despised each other. Some sought primarily to expand government’s power, while others wanted to limit it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to know that there were deep disagreements on matters of religion. I will say that the one place where there was a good deal of consensus was in the belief that the state wasn’t the church and the church wasn’t the state. There were disagreements on the particulars, of course, but that much they agreed on and stamped it into the First Amendment. For Jefferson’s tastes, there would likely be far too much religious influence on politics today. For Washington, probably less so. But except for the very broad parameters they enacted, they mostly decided such questions were questions for us, today, to answer for ourselves.
Q In putting this book together, what was the biggest hurdle for you? That is, was there a point in the research that left you perplexed or at a standstill?
A This project was a lot of fun. The main goal was to assess the situation as it is now, with all of the ways religion influences our politics, and to ask the question why. Why is always the most interesting question to me, whatever I’m doing, precisely because the answers tend to surprise you more than you thought they would. The only standstills involved getting access to interview some of the major characters in the story — people like President Carter, for instance. I got to talk to some neat people along the way — a former presidential candidate, an attorney general and quite a few high-level aides — but Carter’s chief of staff evidently pulled the plug on that interview.
Q You’re the expert. When listening to someone invoke God to get elected or get votes, how do you decide whether he or she is legit?
A Under most circumstances, I care far more about a candidate’s goals than his or her motivations. Politics is so much about performance these days, so I have to simply accept that there are mixed doses of sincerity and insincerity in any electoral appeal.
Q As we mark the birthday of the Declaration of Independence, are you more or less hopeful about the state of politics to come?
A It’s hard to say. So many things are dysfunctional, and I’m as disgusted by that as anyone. We seem unable to have meaningful deliberation about some really serious issues. Much of the time, we’d rather sort into our teams and try to beat the other guys than to reason together toward solutions. And some things, like the conspiracy theories about government plotting to take people’s ammunition, this stuff gets mainstream traction and that’s troubling. But it’s also helpful on occasions like Independence Day to reflect on where we’ve been. The disconcerting things about our media climate pale in comparison to the party presses in the age of Jefferson. And the politics of crisis we’re growing ever more accustomed to is not even in the same ballpark as some of the other crises we’ve come through before. So there’s plenty of cause for despair, but I have a feeling we’ll be OK.
Q How do you plan to spend the Fourth of July?
A I’ll spend the day with my wife and two girls, and in the evening we’ll all go with friends to watch the downtown fireworks.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.