Friday, November 28, 2014

God Wills It, by David O'Connell

Americans are quite familiar with their presidents using religious language in their public speech.  Whether closing an address with "God bless America," or talking about their faith, presidents don't hesitate to inject religious language and references into their speech.  In God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion, David O'Connell examines several cases in which presidents have used religious speech.  He discusses the speech itself, along with whether or not it is effective.

O'Connell's case studies include Eisenhower's appeals for foreign aid and Reagan's opposition to the communists, Bush and Bush's (41 and 43) similar appeals in the good v. evil struggle against terror, Carter's religious defense of his energy policy, Kennedy and Johnson on civil rights, and Ford and Clinton on repentance and forgiveness.  Each chapter includes a bit of background on the religious faith of the presidents, an overview of the historical and political setting, substantial excerpts from presidential speeches, a review of opinion polls and editorial responses in major newspapers, and an evaluation of congress's responses.

O'Connell has what I view as a cynical attitude about presidential use of religious language.  He writes, "when a president uses religious language as a means of shaping the discussion about a particular policy, he is making a strategic choice.  He has calculated that this particular kind of claim can improve his odds of getting what he wants."  But based on all of his analysis, he concludes "that religious rhetoric does not seem to help a president much, if at all."  So religious rhetoric is disingenuous and pointless.

O'Connell's strength in the writing of God Wills It is the contextualization of the speeches he covers.  By focussing on one crisis or event, he provides a well-rounded picture of the historical setting.  This was especially helpful for those events that occurred before my living memory, and even for those I remember I appreciated the refresher.  For example, I don't remember Ford's pardon of Nixon.  He calls Ford's speech announcing the pardon "one of the most religious speeches in all of American presidential history."  Yet, to the point of his research, "it would be hard to find religious rhetoric that was more unsuccessful with the public than this."

The remainder of the study--the survey of public opinion polls and editorial responses--demonstrates a strong ability to quantify subjective data, and clearly illustrates the argument O'Connell makes.  But it makes rather dry reading.  God Wills It might be of interest to the average reader, but it will be of most interest to academics in the field of political science, church-state studies, and related fields.

[A couple of notes on the Kindle version: the charts are virtually unusable due to the formatting.  I don't know how to get around that problem.  I don't think I've ever seen charts in any Kindle book that were formatted properly.  Also, O'Connell uses lots of quotes, some very lengthy.  In a printed version, I'm sure they would be in block quotes, but, again, Kindle doesn't format block quotes well.  I could always tell from context when the quote stopped and O'Connell's writing began, but there were plenty of times that I had to go back and figure it out.  I wish Kindle could figure out how to handle block quotes.]

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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