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Think Religion Plays a Bigger Role in Politics Today? You're Right. Statistics Prove It.

The 2008 presidential campaign is striking in that it seems to be nearly as much about religion as politics.

Mitt Romney’s much-discussed speech on faith and politics is just one recent example of a trend that has stretched throughout the campaign and across both sides of the partisan aisle. During the seemingly endless string of debates, candidates have pondered what Jesus would do about capital punishment, raised their hands to deny evolution, considered whether America is a Christian nation, described the power of prayer, and eagerly affirmed that yes, the Bible is indeed the word of God.

There was a time when such overt religious displays from presidential hopefuls might have been surprising. Now they’re a mundane feature of every serious campaign. How did we get here? In a sense, it all began on July 17, 1980.

That evening, in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for president. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, newly mobilized through organizations such as the Moral Majority, had found their man.

For the previous four years this constituency had tried to like Jimmy Carter who, after all, was an openly “born again” Christian. But Carter had disappointed the political faithful with his insufficiently aggressive foreign policy, support for Roe v. Wade, and general unwillingness to make his faith demonstrably public. Indeed, Carter in his nomination acceptance addresses in 1976 and 1980 made no mention of God whatsoever.

Reagan had a very different strategy. Approaching the end of his 1980 acceptance speech, Reagan departed from his prepared remarks: “I have thought of something that is not part of my speech and I’m worried over whether I should do it.” He paused, then continued:

“Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity.”

Reagan went on, “I’ll confess that”—and here his voice faltered momentarily—“I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest.” A long pause ensued, followed by this: “I’m more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?” The entire hall went silent, heads bowed. He then concluded with words uncommon at the time: “God bless America.”

How do we know that this moment marked a turning point? We ran the numbers.

Our analysis of thousands of public communications across eight decades shows that American politics today is defined by a calculated, demonstrably public religiosity unlike anything in modern history. Consider a few examples.

If one looks at nearly 360 major speeches that presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush have given, the increase in religiosity is astounding. The average president from FDR to Carter mentioned God in a minority of his speeches, doing so about 47% of the time. Reagan, in contrast, mentioned God in 96% of his speeches. George H. W. Bush did so 91% of the time, Clinton 93%, and the current Bush (through year six) was at 94%. Further, the total number of references to God in the average presidential speech since 1981 is 120% higher than the average speech from 1933-1980. References to broader religious terms, such as faith, pray, sacred, worship, crusade, and dozens of others increased by 60%.

Presidential requests for divine favor also show a profound shift. The phrase “God Bless America,” now the signature tagline of American politics, gained ubiquity in the 1980s. Prior to 1981, the phrase had only once passed a modern president’s lips in a major address: Richard Nixon’s, as he concluded an April 30, 1973, speech about the Watergate scandal. Since Reagan, presidents have rarely concluded a major address without “God Bless America” or a close variant.

Recent presidents have also made far more “pilgrimages” to speak to audiences of faith. From FDR through Carter, presidents averaged 5.3 public remarks before overtly religious organizations in a four-year term. Beginning with Reagan through six years of Bush, this average more than tripled to 16.6 per term. For example, since 1981 GOP presidents have spoken 13 times to the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Religious Broadcasters Association, four times to the Knights of Columbus, and four times to the Southern Baptist Convention. Clinton never spoke to these conservative organizations; instead, he spoke in churches. From FDR through Carter, presidents delivered public remarks in churches an average of twice per four-year term. In contrast, Clinton spoke in churches 28 times during two terms in the White House—10 more visits than Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. combined.

Wherever we looked, whatever we measure, we find the same pattern. Presidents and presidential hopefuls since Reagan have been afraid to be seen as the apostate in the room. They put religion front and center to show they’re not.

This new age is one that many past presidents would hardly recognize. One can’t help but wonder what would become of a candidate today who, like John Kennedy in 1960, “believe[s] in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.”