Religion and the Moral Rhetoric of Presidential Politics

by Steven M. Tipton

Dr. Tipton is associate professor of sociology of religion at Emory University and its Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 31, 1984, p. 1010. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Moral rhetoric is no substitute for moral conduct and practical virtue, in politics as elsewhere. Neither of the 1984 presidential candidates (Reagan vs. Mondale) has fully understood the complexity of the other’s views on the religion-in-politics issue.

Neither of the 1984 presidential candidates has fully understood the complexity of the other’s views on the religion-in-politics issue. Reagan is no theocrat and Walter Mondale no secularist, despite what each has implied about the other. More important, neither candidate’s recent statements have made clear the complexity of his own views on this issue. If one compares Reagan and Mondale’s moral rhetoric over the past several years, one sees how distinctively each candidate draws on the moral tradition of biblical religion in American culture and, significantly, how much more directly both of them are indebted to the nonreligious traditions of classical republican humanism and modern individualism for their visions of a good society. This belies simple characterizations of one candidate as more, or more genuinely, religious than the other. It also sheds light on the moral basis of their respective appeals to the religious right and to the mainstream.

President Reagan has often repeated the themes of his 1981 inaugural address in subsequent major speeches, such as his 1984 State of the Union message. In the inaugural address he finds the moral answer to our economic ills in the individual’s obligation to balance his or her own budget: “You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why then should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by the same limitation?” Respecting these economic limitations amounts to self-governance, and this is the only solution to our present political crisis. Economic self-governance yields specifically political results, enabling us to “preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.”

Individual freedom -- for Reagan, the central political virtue -- rests on and makes possible industry and initiative, the economic virtues of a self-reliant and self-disciplined character. ‘‘We are a nation that has a government -- not the other way around.” he states. “Our government has no power except that granted it by the people.” People precede polity in this Lockean view of civic association by contract and government by consent, and the economic realm precedes the political. ‘‘We the people” are identified by our occupations, and we make up a citizenry defined as an all-inclusive “special-interest group,” chiefly concerned with “a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans.” Conversely, Reagan argues that we have “prospered as no other people on earth” because “freedom and dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on earth.”

This libertarian tie between political and economic freedom underpins Reagan’s diagnosis that “our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.” He proposes to “reawaken this industrial giant,” composed of economic individuals, by getting the government off its back. Throughout the address Reagan’s moral emphasis remains on the negative liberty of modern individualism as it derives from and applies to our economic activities, not on republican justice or biblical authority. He follows a libertarian moral logic, in which freedom from restraint comes before freedom to do our duty and obey God, even as he evokes traditional moral values of “family, work, neighborhood and freedom.”

Since 1980 Reagan has taken “profamily” and “ProAmerica” stands on specific social issues of crucial moral and symbolic importance to the electorate’s cultural conservatives, not just to fundamentalist Christians. He argues that we must “protect the rights of unborn children” by outlawing abortion on demand, readmit God to the classroom, and practice ‘‘military and moral rearmament” against the “evil empire” of Soviet communism. Critics have seen these stands as calculated efforts to win back the religious right’s electoral support through moralizing talk, in the absence of strong legislative action on these issues.

Despite his presumably sincere stand on such matters as school prayer, however, Reagan’s religious position is not essentially theocratic, nor is this the basis of his ideological fit with most of the religious right. Rather than preaching the ruling role of religion in public life, he champions governmental noninterference in “traditional” religious and family life. His 1984 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters is particularly revealing, for there he most obviously makes public a piety which is essentially personal, even private -- a piety which takes social form in intimate, bounded and family-like voluntary associations that see themselves in tension with the larger society even as they claim to be its spiritual center. Reagan begins his speech by calling the occasion a “homecoming,” since “under this roof, some 4,000 of us are kindred spirits united by one burning belief: God is our Father; we are his children; together, brothers and sisters, we are one family.” He concludes by describing the personally comforting, otherworldly salvific “promise from Jesus to soothe our sorrows, heal our hearts, and drive away our fears,” for whosoever believeth “will be part of something far more powerful, enduring, and good than all the forces here on earth. We will be part of paradise.”

Reagan’s religious understanding is, in short, sectlike, in Ernst Troeltsch’s generic sense of sects as one legitimate expression of the Christian gospel and tradition, and as one deep-rooted mode of American Christianity. Such sects can, in extraordinary cases, turn aggressively toward the larger society and seek to conquer it by overtly political and legal means. But much more commonly, sects are tempted instead to withdraw from the larger society and to reject its culture. By remaining aloof from the moral argument of public life, sects play into the secular drive to privatize and depoliticize religion, to let “the world” and its economic individuals go their own way -- as they are usually all too willing to do.

Ronald Reagan stands at the crossroads of the economic and religious right, favoring a minimal state and free enterprise in a complex corporate society. His moral rhetoric flows more directly from the economic than the religious right, as do the items at the top of his policy agenda. (Only national defense takes on its special urgency in the spotlight of a cosmological dualism that shines most brightly from the religious right, to whom Satan and his powers and principalities remain most actively evil.) But Reagan’s economic individualism complements sectlike religion’s special concern for personal piety and salvation, and for holding polity and government at arm’s length from work and family life. Moreover, it rings true to the entrepreneurial experience of many fundamentalist ministers, whose independent churches succeed by dint of their own labor, God’s grace and the direct contributions of those in the pews or in front of the television set, unsupported by national denominations analogous to big government. Reagan’s economic individualism also fits with the small-town and small-business orientation of many who fill these independent churches.

At the same time, the president’s laissez-faire vision, like Adam Smith’s, relies on personal piety to civilize a free-market society of mutually disinterested individuals by shaping their consciences and filling their hearts with charitable sympathy, especially for those whom the market fails. Such a society needs churches for providing “a very worthwhile safety net” for have-nots and for “promoting fundamental American values of hard work, family, freedom, and faith” for all citizens, as President Reagan put it this spring in thanking the National Association of Evangelicals for its ministry. Religion paves the moral main street of a white-clapboard America inhabited by independent individuals who lend each other a helping hand to earn their own way, support their own families and worship their own God, instead of depending for handouts on a welfare state that regulates hardworking individuals out of existence and replaces Christian charity with legal entitlements.

Reagan’s remarks at the Dallas prayer breakfast paint a picture of an America raised on religion but growing secularized since the 1960s. Who is to blame? In particular, it is the courts and the American Civil Liberties Union secularists who sued against school prayer and Bible reading, church tax exemptions, and the like. In general, it is “those who care only about the interests of the state” against whom “religion needs defenders.” In the president’s view, attacks on religious faith, economic freedom and the traditional family run together, and come chiefly from big government and its liberal, secular partisans. Against them, Reagan stands up for his economic and defense record, and argues for school prayer, tuition tax credits and abortion restrictions -- not to impose any religious establishment but to restore religious freedom, strengthen traditional “social mores” and protect the unborn.

If religion guarantees the freedom of economic individuals for Ronald Reagan, how does it figure in Walter Mondale’s vision .of a good society? By contrast to the “partisan zealotry” and “moral McCarthyism” that the religious right breeds and Reagan embraces, Mondale affirmed to the B’nai B’rith convention his commitment to religious pluralism and tolerance as mandated by the First Amendment. Its aim of free exercise comes first, and nonestablishment serves to ensure it. “Our government is the protector of every faith because it is the exclusive property of none,” he stated. Unlike the Queen of England, who is the defender of an established church’s faith. “the president of the United States is the defender of the Constitution -- which defends all faiths.” Mondale’s alternative vision is clearest in his depiction of life as a forum rather than a pulpit. ‘‘The civility of our public debate depends on our willingness to accept the good faith of those who disagree,” he told the B’nai B’rith. Emphatic that “faith is personal and honorable and uncorrupted by political influence,” Mondale is less clear about how religious and moral meaning should enter into the public forum. “I believe in an America where government is not permitted to dictate the religious life of our people; where religion is a private matter between individuals and God, between families and their churches and synagogues, with no room for politicians in between,” he states. But presenting religion as a private matter is hardly a full response to theocratic threats or to Reagan’s individualism. What does public morality mean to Mondale, and what is its relation to religion?

During the primaries Mondale steered clear of explicitly biblical moral language, leaving to Jesse Jackson prophetic exhortations to “feed the hungry, save the children,” pursue peace, and “restore the conscience of this nation,” lest we be punished by a just God. He comes closest to republican eloquence in his stump speech calling for “social decency, not social Darwinism.” We need “a restored sense of fairness and justice -- a fairer America,” he contends. “We are not a jungle; we are a community of family and nations -- we need a president who causes us to care for one another.” In Mondale’s eyes laissez-faire politics leaves us with a Hobbesian jungle of tooth-and-claw individuals instead of a Smithian marketplace of conscientious Christians.

Fed by the social gospel and the Farmer-Laborite progressivism of his youth, Mondale’s standpoint holds that ‘‘Christ taught a sense of social mission” and that churches should commit themselves to justice for the whole of society and the welfare of all its members, especially the needy. “I was taught that we bear witness to our faith through a life of commitment, consideration and service to our fellow men and women,” he declared to the B’nai B’rith. Government should have the soul of a caring church, actively bearing responsibility for society’s welfare and justice. Democrats are “the party of caring,” and they “believe in strong, efficient and compassionate government,” Mondale declared at the 1980 convention. There he attacked Reagan’s view that “the best thing government can do is nothing,” and defended the New Deal legacy of social welfare programs and reforms, from Social Security through civil rights to Medicare.

In the America that Mondale idealizes as he describes his own small-town upbringing, churchgoing neighbors of modest means work hard, not so much for the sake of individual success and freedom, but to serve the family, faith and community they love. “We never had a dime,” he says of his parents. “But we were rich in the values that are important. . . . They taught me to work hard; to stand on my own; to play by the rules; to tell the truth; to obey the law; to care for others; to love our country; and to cherish our faith.” Here we find a community of implicitly biblical memory and hope set out in terms that usually sound more populist and progressive than religious: “America is not just for people on the make; it’s for everybody, including people who can’t make it.” So stated, Mondale’s moral contrast to Reagan comes through most sharply when he addresses labor unions, not religious groups.

Before the Building and Construction Trades Union convention last year Mondale counterposed to Reagan’s “Darwinism” his ideal of “a fair, a hopeful, a kind, and a just nation” for all persons, especially those who are old, black, brown, handicapped, or simply “overwhelmed by problems beyond their reach”:

This President teaches a philosophy of survival of the fittest  . . . . that the only thing that works is the market. If you re not OK, that’s too bad. Whenever we want to do something, rebuild this nation, put people back to work, educate our children, prohibit discrimination, protect our environment, help the sick, no matter what you want to do -- this administration says, let the market take care of it. That’s not going to work. This nation needs a strong President and a strong government.

Not only individuals, but government as an institution must possess a compassionate heart and a just conscience, and it must be empowered to act accordingly.

In explaining his sense of justice to the United Mine Workers in 1983, Mondale first invoked the republican premise that all citizens are ‘‘human beings entitled to dignity and rights.” Then he turned to more individualistic terms to define fairness as “a bargain in American life”: “When you work hard and pay your taxes; when you’re a good parent and citizen; when you obey the law and play by the rules you have a right to expect certain things in exchange, as a part of the bargain. You’re entitled to a safe job, a good job with dignity,” a decent income, a safe community, good schools, a secure retirement, a chance to enjoy life, and “a government that’s on your side.” Although each of us earns these rewards by living according to American values, government must secure this exchange. Thus Mondale reworks the idea of the social contract to justify the individual entitlements of the welfare state, not the individual freedoms of the market. He emphasizes the institutional centrality of the state, not the economy or the church, in public life, although he draws indirectly on Christian ideals of love and community for his notion of a just and caring nation.

Central to Mondale’s republican faith is respect for the integrity of public debate. He insists on the need for honest debate as we struggle toward “new foundations and new rules” in the face of the institutional changes and the uncertainties that have swept our nation over the past generation. The “yearning for traditional values” can divide us, he cautions, if it is exploited to polarize public debate for partisan advantage. So “family must not become code for intolerance.” Nor religion for censorship, or law for repression. Public morality does not mean the shoring up of lax morals through legislation demanded by a culturally conservative voting bloc. In fact, such efforts go hand in hand with group-interest pluralism and economic individualism. They cannot take the place of a publicly argued and shared understanding of the common good. While Mondale barely sketches this vision, he ties it more firmly to its classical humanist than to its biblical anchorage in our culture.

The counterbalance to Reagan’s position is not the simpleminded, sociologically impossible attempt to generalize church-state separation into the separation of religion and politics, private and public life. Such an attempt is part of the problem, a problem that is not obviated by Mondale’s notion of a government with the soul of a church, but without a church’s creed, rites and congregational community. Indeed, Reagan comes closest to grasping the civil religious truth of the matter when he states that “politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related.” But we can acknowledge this truth without accepting the president’s reasoning for it. We can recognize that the humanist and individualist moral traditions are also necessary to public life. We can rebut Reagan’s assumption that religious practice automatically guarantees moral virtue and justifies favoring the ethical views of conservative over liberal Christians, Jews or agnostics on such specific issues as school prayer.

The genuine alternative to Reagan’s position is a civil religion that is in conversation with truly churchlike and public denominations that seek neither privilege nor establishment for themselves, but dignity, justice and moral community for all of God’s children. Such churches, respecting the difference between church and state yet recognizing the cultural and practical interconnection of civic and religious life, can serve as schools for civic as well as personal virtue, for public-spirited citizens as well as for devout believers. Mondale has only obliquely hinted at such a churchlike alternative to Reagan’s sectlike understanding of religion and politics.

In the long run, however unlikely it may now appear, the religious New Right may mark theologically conservative Protestants’ first step in this more churchlike direction, propelled as they are beyond sectarian shelter by their ongoing social and cultural integration into the more educated and urban middle class. If this is so, they should eventually part ways with economic individualists and theocrats alike, as they come to broaden the range of public theology and deepen its conversation with civil religion. The mainline denominations can make this constructive outcome more likely by engaging the religious right in attentively and civilly sustained debate, by counterorganizing and pressing for compromise on specific issues, as Martin Marty has urged, and by consistently decrying religious intolerance, but not moral activism.

Moral rhetoric is, of course, no substitute for moral conduct and practical virtue, in politics as elsewhere. Personal piety and decency are no replacements for a wise and just public policy, and they do not necessarily translate into it. In a purely procedural constitutional state, religion and morality are private matters of personal preference and opinion. Opinions are like noses: everybody has one, and you cannot really argue about them. All you can do is line them up and count them, in opinion polls and at the voting polls. In this sense “public opinion” is actually the sum of private opinions. Trying to mobilize such opinion by simply endorsing candidates, “scoring” their voting records, and lobbying for or against particular positions is secular electioneering, not moral crusading. It is something religious institutions have no business doing. If they persist in it, they risk being damned to private life in a secular society they have attempted to manipulate by its own means, rather than reconquering for Christ.

In a republic, morality is public because it has more or less good reasons and coherent ideals, truthfulness to tradition and to the present. Public life takes the form of a moral argument, a dramatic conversation. It is a forum, not a pulpit, or a mere marketplace for exchanging ideas and brokering interests, or an arena where power blocs fight it out. For religion to deserve its place in this forum, it must tell and enact sacred stories and teach universal ideals, defining what it means to be a good person, and what makes life worth living and a society worth living in and working for. It must bring these ideals to bear on particular issues, illuminating their moral meaning in the light of Scriptures, the life of Jesus, the laws of nature and the Kingdom of God. This kind of reasoned, argued, exemplified and Bible-supported moral illumination -- not electioneering and lobbying -- is what American public life needs from religion.

As Alexis de Tocqueville saw, moral ideas and sentiments rooted in religious traditions and institutions are necessary to sustain the ethical argument and civic friendship of public life in a republic such as ours, whose fate finally rests on the habits of the heart of its citizens. Such ideas and sentiments are not sufficient to do so, nor are they monolithic in doing so. But they are essential if we are to understand our moral ambivalences and our disagreements over the conduct of our common lives, and to move toward their resolution. To make this clearer to our presidential candidates, we need to do more than vote and pray for them. We need to argue with them and with one another. And we need to live out the gospel that we preach, teaching our neighbors by example. At both tasks we have made only a beginning.