It is now practically a requirement that every Presidential Address end with the invocation "God bless America." In fact, references to God are steadily on the rise in all political speeches and have been for the past 40 years. This shift towards political "God talk" can be seen on both the left and the right and is certainly advantageous, or no one would do it.
One reason that it is advantageous is that religious rhetoric in political speeches tends to be vague. This allows the listener to understand a reference to God through the prism of his or her personal theology. It is like championing "Freedom" -- who isn't for his own freedom? And in America, few people do not believe in God. At the end of the day, references to God are non-offensive to the overwhelming majority of Americans yet also demanded by a fervent core of believers. Thus, it would be politically unwise not to mention God.
But what do Americans hear when a leader invokes God's name? In short, they hear vastly different messages. And here is both the power and the danger in talking about God. The power comes from the fact that most Americans view the United States as a force of good in the world and tied to a larger cosmic good -- namely, God. For this reason, politicians can reinforce this collective sense of goodness while also, not so subtly, implying that they too are on the side of God.
The danger comes from the fact that while Americans tend to agree in our collective goodness, Americans define this goodness and, in turn, their God in radically different and sometimes opposing ways. For some, God is a wrathful and imposing figure who watches national politics closely and is swift to dish out punishments for our political missteps. For others, God is a distant cosmic force which endows each of us with the ability to discover and understand moral goodness. So in one sense, a reference to God can indicate a call to heed God's plan "or else," and in another sense, evoking God is seen as a reminder to be compassionate as we consider various solutions to our problems.
In our book, America's Four Gods: What We Say about God and What That Says about Us, we demonstrate that Americans can be divided into four distinct categories of believers. For purposes of this brief essay, we only discuss two groups of believers -- those which most closely reflect our political party divisions. They are believers in an Authoritative God, who tend to be overwhelmingly Republican, and believers in a Distant God, who tend to be largely Democrat. Other types of believers are more evenly distributed across our political landscape and atheists constitute such a small portion of the population as to be politically immaterial.
Believers in an Authoritative God view God as rigid in His (these believers tend to think of God as male) moral judgments and very clear in His demand for our obedience. The Republican Party platform attracts believers of an Authoritative God for logical reasons, especially when considering how conservatives adopt a stance of moral absolutism in their opposition to abortion, gay marriage and gays in the military. For these believers, God has laid out what is immoral and our leaders should do likewise.
Believers in an Authoritative God are also more likely to view personal, national and global change as a continuing battle between good and evil. And the labeling of our enemies as "evil" by political leaders (think about President Bush's frequent references to the "axis of evil," "evil-doers," the "fighting evil") rings true to those believers who are intent at discovering where evil lurks and how to extinguish it.
In contrast, believers in a Distant God view God as a cosmic force who created existence and promotes goodness through this creation. These believers have trouble accepting that 1) God has a laundry list of forbidden activities, 2) the world is divided starkly into good and evil and 3) one can meaningfully talk about God's gender or personality.
Overall, believers in a Distant God are attracted to the Democratic Party platform. They feel that the government can make a kinder and gentler society through regulation of business and feel strongly that we must protect individual moral choice against religious and moral dogmatism. Still, these believers feel that faith in God is important because it leads one to be more humane, more sensitive to other's needs, and more reflective in decision-making.
When hearing politicians talk about God, believers in Authoritative and Distant Gods absorb different messages. This may be initially advantageous to particular leaders but can backfire when a believer feels a particular policy does not reflect the "true" essence of God. In these cases, a leader can be seen as theologically misguided and morally dangerous.
For instance, many believers in an Authoritative God feel that President Obama is not truly Christian and that his "God talk" is a sham. This comes from the fact that many of his policy proposals are not to their liking. Similarly, many believers in a Distant God state that former President Bush was a religious fanatic or possibly dishonest in his religious devotion. Again, this view comes from a disagreement over policy. And herein resides a danger.
When politicians talk about God they shift the discussion of policy to a consideration of theological truth. Instead of leaving political decisions to the question of whether a policy advances a particular social good, references to God inadvertently ask the listener to consider whether a leader or political party invokes the one true God.
For this reason, we risk making politics about who has the power to decide which God is the true God. It is a political development that goes against the very idea of religious liberty yet one which is strengthened every time the president says "God bless America." Exactly whose God does he mean?