book cover imageGod Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion
by David O’Connell.
Transaction, 2014.
Hardcover, 452 pp., $54.95.

David O’Connell’s God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion is a thoughtful, engaging, but ultimately unconvincing examination of how presidents since World War II have used religious rhetoric to advance their policies. O’Connell, a political scientist who teaches at Dickinson College, distinguishes between presidents’ use of communitarian religious rhetoric—“broad, nondescript spiritual language” designed to unite Americans—and coalitional religious rhetoric—sectarian language that aims to convince enough citizens to achieve their specific political objectives. Focusing on the latter type, he assesses the use of religious language and moral arguments by Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan to increase defense spending, of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush to gain support for Operation Desert Storm and the War on Terror respectively, of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to gain approval for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, of Jimmy Carter to pass his energy policy, of Gerald Ford to justify his pardon of Richard Nixon, and of Bill Clinton to atone for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky and avoid being removed from office.

O’Connell contends that post-World War II presidents used less religious rhetoric than most scholars and other Americans think. He asserts that presidents typically employed coalitional religious language to deal with four broad policy areas—foreign policy, environmental policy, civil rights, and scandals in crisis situations—only after other types of arguments had failed. O’Connell further argues that such religious rhetoric did not work. It did not increase popular support for presidents’ positions, garner positive responses from the media, or help persuade Congress to vote for their proposals.

O’Connell disputes the claim of Colleen Shogan in The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents” (2006) that when presidents have sought to quickly rally public support for highly contentious issues, deal with complex legislation, promise to provide moral leadership, or want to stop Congress from taking the lead on particular issues, they have used religious and moral rhetoric effectively to strengthen their authority. Based on research for two books on the faith of American presidents, I disagree with O’Connell’s contention that presidents are reluctant to use religious rhetoric except as a last resort. I concur with Shogan that such rhetoric helps accomplish many of their goals and helps satisfy important public expectations. Throughout American history, presidents have employed religious rhetoric extensively for numerous reasons: to provide comfort and consolation, argue that God providentially directs the United States, defend democracy, hold citizens and the country accountable to divine standards, justify the nation’s actions, foster traditional morality and justice, promote prayer and Bible reading, call for national and individual repentance and spiritual revival, express their own deepest convictions, commemorate national and religious holidays, and unite Americans.

Presidents, like other politicians, use religion to further their own purposes—to gain the approval of various groups, enhance their popularity, win elections, fortify their claim to be virtuous and honest, and increase support for their policies. They employ religious and moral rhetoric to defend their own policies, programs, and actions and to criticize those of their opponents. Religious and moral appeals connect particular policies with transcendent principles, elevating them above mundane, pragmatic concerns and sometimes helping strengthen citizens’ commitment to them.

O’Connell maintains that presidents in earlier periods of American history probably used religious rhetoric more frequently and successfully. And, as noted, he focuses only on presidents’ use of religious and moral language to achieve their policy aims. My research indicates, however, that most post-World War II presidents regularly and effectively employed religious and moral rhetoric to help justify their policies. Examples abound, including Harry Truman’s approach to the Cold War and decision to recognize Israel, Nixon’s campaign to further world peace, Carter’s quest to advance human rights around the globe, Reagan’s endeavors to pass a school prayer amendment, secure tuition tax credits, and oppose communism, George H. W. Bush’s effort to gain support for Operation Desert Storm, Clinton’s promotion of religious liberty and attempt to reform welfare and resolve international conflicts, George W. Bush’s backing for faith-based initiatives and opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and the use of new embryonic stem-cells in research, and Barack Obama’s policies on poverty and homosexual civil rights.

Moreover, O’Connell’s method for assessing the effectiveness of religious rhetoric is problematic. He focuses on three measures—presidents’ personal approval ratings and questions asked to the public about their efforts to achieve specific objectives, editorial reactions to major addresses in which presidents used religious arguments, and the Congressional outcome of their proposals. Judged by these measures, O’Connell argues, presidents’ use of religious rhetoric consistently failed to achieve their goals.

However, O’Connell’s approach is flawed. First, in most of the cases he examined, no specific opinion polls exist to evaluate presidents’ support of specific policies, let alone their use of religious rhetoric to defend them. In addition, too many factors are involved in presidential approval ratings to use them to accurately measure how the public perceived presidents’ employment of religious rhetoric to promote particular policies. Presidential speeches typically utilize economic, social, strategic, and political arguments as well as religious ones to advance policies, which makes it impossible to separate how citizens viewed their religious rationales from their other ones.

Second, O’Connell confines his examination of editorials about the presidential objectives he studied to those published the week after a major speech in four notably politically liberal publications—the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post. These newspapers were not likely to be favorable toward any policies promoted by Republican presidents. Scrutinizing newspapers representing a diversity of political perspectives would have yielded different results. Moreover, numerous polls indicate that in recent decades those who work in mainstream print media have been much more secular in ideology and have had much lower rates of church attendance than the American public. As a result, they are not inclined to view religious arguments positively.

Third, in many of the cases O’Connell examines, presidents, while not getting all the funds they sought from Congress, did get a high percentage of what they requested. Or they secured the Congressional vote they desired—to declare war, pass legislation, or avoid being convicted of impeachment.

In addition, O’Connell acknowledges that presidents function in a constitutional system that is designed to make it difficult for them to achieve their objectives and that their “rhetoric is actually more likely to push the public in the opposite direction” (page xxix). This is to say that even if their use of religious language did fail to accomplish presidents’ aims, it would not be unusual.

Finally, the title of O’Connell’s book is misleading. In no case he studies did a president argue that Americans should support his policy because “God willed it.” Rather, presidents contended that weighty religious and moral considerations helped justify their political objectives, which is a substantively different argument.

Despite these flaws, God Wills It contains much valuable analysis of how, when, and why post-World War II presidents employed religious rhetoric to help accomplish important political objectives.  

Gary Scott Smith is a fellow for Faith and Politics at the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents (Oxford University Press, 2015).