I have long known that this was an exceptionally poor question in its previous form. I've wanted to work on it, and I've hopefully got a good angle.

The premise refers to:

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%.
—Coe & Domke, 'Think Religion Plays a Bigger Role in Politics Today? You're Right. Statistics Prove It.'

This sky-rocketing began with Reagan's use of "God bless America" to top off his acceptance speech in 1980. Did Reagan's use of "God bless America" in this speech reflect tones that were already present in the American political discussion on some level (local, etc...)? Did Reagan ever describe whether the effect of that decision—to top off his speech in that way which would greatly increase the use of religious symbology in presidential discussions—was to his liking?

This increased mention of the Christian religion and principles worked in Reagan's favour who tied the Christian evangelical vote with the Republican party—something that's been the case since then. Yet, the Politico article also describes how the evangelist vote has been of use in the congressional elections but not in the presidential ones:

On the presidential level, the Christian Right bloc has rarely been essential. Reagan’s two wins and Bush Sr.’s win were large enough that running up the score with evangelicals wasn’t necessary. Reagan had the economy working for him. Bush’s savaging of Dukakis rested more on his criminal justice record and national security positions than on his First Amendment views regarding “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

After that hat trick, the evangelical-dominated Republican coalition has failed to help deliver a majority popular vote in every presidential election save for 2004. Some coalition.
—Scher, 'When Reagan Dared to Say ‘God Bless America’'


3 Answers 3


I think a quote from John Adams:

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

will serve as a great short answer.

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    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ring a bell? Jun 9, 2020 at 18:50
  • this answer does not indicate that John Adams was commenting on any religious laws of the nation, merely who would consider the Constitution on which it was founded as adequate.
    – Hatman
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:56
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    All of the founding fathers were religious. Here is another quote by Adams that might be shocking in our times: “Science, liberty, and religion … have an inseparable union. Without their joint influence no society can be great, flourishing, or happy." Jun 9, 2020 at 21:21

Its hard to say conclusively a "tone" is new, but mention of God in presidential inaugural speeches was nothing new in 1980. Consider the closing of John F. Kennedy's speech (January 20, 1961) saying:

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Prior to that, Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural address in 1953 opened as a prayer, explicitly mentioned "God" five times, and the penultimate paragraph was:

"This is the hope that beckons us onward in this century of trial. This is the work that awaits us all, to be done with bravery, with charity, and with prayer to Almighty God."

For a good survey of the topic, see the PBS/Frontline article God in the White House.

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    Kennedy's religiosity was most likely an outlier, imo.
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 9, 2020 at 19:11

Throughout most of US history, religiosity has been an unquestioned norm. Politicians had no need to emphasize God or religious issues, because they assumed that their audiences were overwhelmingly Christian. Likewise, audiences assumed that politicians were Christian, and would (for the most part) represent Christian perspectives.

However, the mid-to-late 1960s opened up a number of different challenges to Christian political hegemony in the US. The civil rights and feminist movements created new opportunities for blacks and women in the public realm, challenging traditional (Christian) social structures. There was an influx of different religions into the US, mostly in urban regions — Jews who had fled Nazi persecution in the previous decade, Muslims seeking better opportunities, Hindu and Buddhist philosophies picked up by the countercultural 'Peace' movements — and a significant rise in secular-scientific power, anti-religious Marxist philosophy, and intellectual atheism. Legal rulings like Epperson v. Arkansas (1968: overturning an Arkansas law which prohibited teaching evolution) and Roe v. Wade (1973: establishing the right to abortion) created stress and fear in more fundamentalist religious institutions, a fear based in the soteriological stance of Christian fundamentalism, which ties eternal salvation to faith in the veracity of biblical teachings that were consistently being challenged in secular law. This was particularly pronounced in the deep South and the 'flyover' states, where faith was associates with small, homogenous congregations very different from the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural experiences found on the urbanized coastal regions. These traditional Christians saw the Christian political hegemony fading away while a progressive, secular, dramatically including power block began to rise, and they began mobilizing politically to counteract that rapid progressive change.

By 1980, Christian fundamentalism had become a large, vocal, and cohesive voting block, with many mainstream elements — e.g., the Moral Majority movement, and anti-abortion and anti-evolution groups — as well as some deeply radicalized extremes, like the Posse Comitatus of the early militia movement. Reagan explicitly leveraged that voting block by appealing to their fear of change and demonstrably portraying himself as religious through increased religious language. It was an effective strategy — a messianic moment in which Reagan positioned himself and the GOP as the savior of US Christianity — and Republicans have relied on it up until the Trump Administration (Trump still uses it, but poorly and haphazardly). Democrats have been obliged to follow suit, increasing their own religious demonstrativeness, so as not to lose ground within more moderate, liberal Christian communities.

So yes, the religious overtones were always there, but invisibly, as part of the accept, subconscious background of American life. Those overtones only became conscious (even strident) outward expressions after the Christian political hegemony began to fail in the '60s and '70s.

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    This answer would, IMO, be stronger if it steered away from loaded terms like "fundamentalism" and KKK/militia movement references. Something like the Moral Majority, an association I personally feel little sympathy for, but is less of a straw man, would serve just as well. These are religious people, deeply so, but they are also not loonies, unlike the folk you cite as examples. Plus, just on a voting numbers basis, Moral Majority did a lot more to get Reagan elected than KKK, and is precisely on point with the OP's question. Unlike the KKK. Jun 9, 2020 at 21:59
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: That's a fair point, though I'm a little uncomfortable calling the Moral Majority radical extremists. They were deeply religious, but relatively mainstream as these things go. I kind of wanted to point out the depth of the extremism — the KKK, the bombings and murders related to abortion, the extremism of the milia groups — all of which marked the beginning of the extreme rightward pull we see today. But maybe that's too much. I'll reframe it a bit; let me know if the revision strikes a better tone. Jun 9, 2020 at 22:29
  • I don't know why you want to weave in extreme and radical Christians, rather than just plain old Christians who believe their way is the right way for everyone. That's folk like the Moral Majority, or to a slightly more extreme level, the kind of people who insist on removing evolution from biology lessons. Bringing in the militia or KKK weakens this argument. Jun 9, 2020 at 22:50
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: I'm not sure why you think it weakens the argument. What I'm describing is simply factual: a reactive movement that had a small but pronounced extremist edge. The problem with omitting that edge is that it re-normalizes the context: in other words, it portrays what happened in the 80s as merely conservative (a position that defends cultural values) rather than reactionary (a position that aggressively reasserts changed values). Jun 10, 2020 at 1:16
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    @gktscrk: On this forum I expect a certain number of downvotes from people who want to mythologize history. History can be uncomfortable; it forces us all to think about how we got where we are, and often bursts the bubble of exceptionalism (that idea that we are somehow independent of everything that came before us). As a result, some people cannot help but see historical facts as a personal attack, and respond in kind. It's unfortunate, but inevitable. Jun 10, 2020 at 16:55

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