Emory Report
April 13, 2009
Volume 61, Number 27


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April 13
, 2009
Balmer: Religion proxy for morality in politics

By Laurel Hanna

Author, historian, Emmy Award nominee, and Episcopal priest the Rev. Randall Balmer traced the historical shift in the relationship of religion and presidential politics in an April 2 lecture based on the most recent of his dozen books, “God in the White House.”

Balmer noted that in 1960, John F. Kennedy sought to allay voters’ fears that his Roman Catholic faith would influence his decisions as president by encouraging voters to disregard a candidate’s faith when casting their votes. Yet 40 years later, just before the Iowa caucuses in 2000, George W. Bush said that Jesus was his “favorite political philosopher,” a statement that appealed to a large voting bloc of evangelical Christians.

In studying this dramatic shift in attitudes toward religion and politics, Balmer found that the so-called “Kennedy paradigm” — where a presidential candidate’s religion was not expected to influence his campaign — prevailed in presidential elections until after the Watergate scandal and impending impeachment of Richard Nixon forced his resignation in 1974.

“Nixon’s prevarications and corruption shook Americans’ trust to the extent that the next president they elected was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher named Jimmy Carter,” said Balmer, Candler’s distinguished visiting professor in the McDonald Family Chair in the Study of Jesus and Culture.

“Americans elected a ‘redeemer’ president after Nixon to cleanse the Oval Office of its tawdry state,” Balmer said, noting that the same scenario occurred in 2000 with the election of Bush, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, after Bill Clinton’s in-office extramarital affair.

Balmer explained the shift in mingling religion and politics by asserting that “Americans now regard religion as a proxy for morality. The only way we can figure out if someone is ‘good’ or trustworthy is to ask if they’re a person of faith, if they’re religious.” He added: “We need new language to determine a person’s moral character.”

Balmer said that often, a candidate’s profession of faith assuring the public that he or she is a “good” person appears to be lip-service only; after elected, the administration’s policies do not reflect the tenets of the candidate’s declared faith.

“The American people need to ask follow-up questions to hold leaders accountable,” said Balmer. “‘If Jesus is your favorite philosopher, how will his declarations to turn the other cheek, bring peace, and love your enemies inform your foreign policy? If Jesus cares for the tiniest sparrow, how will that inform your environmental policy?’”

Balmer’s final McDonald lecture, “Mistaken Identity: Jimmy Carter, the Abortion Myth, and the Rise of the Religious Right” will be April 16 at 4:30 p.m. in room 102 of Candler School of Theology.