by Paul Waldman
Eight years ago at the Republican National Convention in New York, some viewers looked at the podium from which George W. Bush and other speakers addressed the country and saw a cross in the podium’s design, as though Bush were speaking from a pulpit. Republicans called it ridiculous, but the sending of such a not-too-subliminal message wouldn’t have been out of character; since the 1980s and the rise of the religious right, Republicans have tried in ways large and small to convince voters that GOP stands for God’s Own Party. But in 2012 the rhetoric seems to have undergone a subtle change. Now that we’ve hit the general election, God is less a headliner than a supporting player in the Republican show. And He may just be a Tea Partier, standing in opposition to big government and perhaps donning a celestial tri-corner hat.
You do have to pay a bit more attention these days to hear the invocation of religion than you did during the primaries, when one candidate after another pledged to bring more religion to government (remember this ad?) and no fewer than three candidates—Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum—testified that God himself had encouraged them to run for president. Perhaps they should have spotted the loophole when God didn’t actually promise they’d win, but who argues when you’re getting a message from above—especially when it’s coming via text? (That’s how Cain got his divine call. Seriously.) Now that we’re in the general election, the rhetoric is toned down and more ecumenical, but as we saw at their convention, the Republican message remains unmistakable: Our policies, our agenda, and our vision come from above.
Of course, there was the now-familiar intimation that America is God’s favorite, which came in places other than the standard (for both parties) “God bless America,” which as James Fallows argues, has become an empty cliché meaning nothing more than “This speech is over now.” “Our national motto is ‘In God We Trust,’” said Marco Rubio, “reminding us that faith in our creator is the most important American value of all.” Sorry, you millions of non-believers—turns out you aren’t really American. At least he put it with a bit more subtlety than George H.W. Bush did in 1988 when he said, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
Republicans don’t talk quite that way anymore, but they still want you to know who’s on the side of heaven. “Sometimes,” Paul Ryan said last week in his speech, his voice rising in pitch and volume to what sounded like a combination of pleading and yelling, “even presidents need reminding that our rights come from nature and God, and not from government!” One convention speaker after another said the same. “The Framers understood that our rights come not from monarchs but from God,” said soon-to-be senator from Texas Ted Cruz. Actress and conservative talk show host Janine Turner said the same: “God gives us our rights, not government.” “We have nothing to fear except our own unwillingness to defend what is naturally ours, our God-given rights,” said Senator Rand Paul. Mike Huckabee too told the convention that “God gave us inalienable rights.”
What Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, this is an awfully odd notion once you stop to think about it. If God granted us rights like the freedom of speech, why did it take so long for Him to get around to letting us enjoy them? Why does God allow only some of his subjects to enjoy those rights, while millions or even billions live without them?
The truth is that rights have always been government’s to withhold or guarantee as it saw fit. It was only the arrival of democratic government in the late 18th century that gave rights any meaning at all. It wasn’t faith in God that led the Founders to write the Bill of Rights—most every government in history to that point (and most since) believed it had a direct line to above, but never contemplated guaranteeing things like the right to equal protection under the laws (nor did the Founders, for that matter; it took almost a century after the revolution to put that in the Constitution). The most godly regimes have always been among the most repressive and dictatorial, where the idea of “rights” was so absurd as to be not worth mentioning.
I wonder exactly which rights Paul Ryan thinks Barack Obama needs to be reminded come from God. The right to due process? Well, Obama’s record on that one is spotty, it’s true, but the occasional extrajudicial killing of a terrorist suspect is just fine with most Republicans. The right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure? Many Democrats have been critical of the Obama’s continuation of the failure that is the War on Drugs, but again, that’s one Republicans are fine with. So it must the right to freely practice your religion, which conservatives feel is under attack. But what made that guarantee remarkable in 1789 was that no religion, anywhere where it held power, had ever even considered it.
God could have changed that if He wanted, and forestalled all of history’s inquisitions and religious repression, some of which continues to this day. But it took democratic government to guarantee the freedom to worship—and all the other rights that our Constitution guarantees. Maybe someone should remind Paul Ryan and the Republicans of that.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.