The God card: Strategic employment of religious language in U.S. presidential discourse

By Ceri Hughes

Though the Constitution explicitly forbids any religious qualification for holding public office, the religiosity of the holder of the highest public office—the presidency—has been an issue of salience to voters. Every occupant to date of the Oval Office is or was a Christian—something they are essentially required to promote in their public addresses.

Some presidents appear to be keener than others to do this. Research by RMIG Membership Chair Ceri Hughes examines the rate at which presidents from the past hundred years use general religious language and explicit invocations of God in their public addresses. The most notable, and perhaps surprising finding is that the president with the highest rate of usage is the current Oval incumbent, Donald Trump.

Some argue that Trump’s faith is developing—evangelical leaders referring to him in 2016 as a “baby Christian.” Yet, in 2016 white Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for him — support he has largely retained. Whether his high level of religious language in public addresses is an artifact of the increasing importance of religion to him personally, or whether it is more due to the increasing importance of the religious to him politically, is a question this research raises.

This research concludes that the use of religious language escalated from the presidency of Ronald Reagan. There is also evidence to suggest that post-Reagan presidents use religious language as an aid to “trespass” into areas of opposition strength.

Democrats use such language at a higher rate than their Republican contemporaries in collocation with text on the economy, defense and terrorism. Republicans, meanwhile, were using such language more than Democrats on issues traditionally “owned” by Democrats.

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