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We Like Our Politicians Devout — But Not Too Devout

A interview on the double-edged role religion will play in November's election.
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When Larry Powell was growing up in a small town in southern Alabama, his family had a strict Sunday morning ritual. They would sit down in front of the television and watch Meet the Press. They would then get up and go to church.

"I thought everybody did that," said Powell, an academic and former political consultant who has extensively studied the association between the pew and the polling place. An associate professor of communications studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he coined the term "The Pharisee Effect," in which a political candidate's excessive reliance on religion turns off voters, just as The New Testament portrays Pharisees as being ultra-devout yet hypocritical religious leaders.

For nearly three decades, Christian conservatives have been an important component of the Republican coalition, using their political power to push a social agenda dominated by an antipathy for abortion. But their influence has been limited — even in the Deep South. In a paper published in the June issue of the North American Journal of Psychology, Powell examines the case of Roy Moore, a religiously zealous judge who tried to ride his support among far-right fundamentalists into the Alabama governor's mansion — and failed.

The timing of the study's release is fortuitous, in that the nation is now focused on a politician, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose Republican vice presidential candidacy has invigorated Christian conservatives. Her stated beliefs have provided her with a base of strong supporters, but will they ultimately help her with the wider electorate? In a telephone interview with, Powell expressed strong doubts. How do you describe Americans' somewhat conflicted view of religion and politics?

Larry Powell: Devoutness is valued, and yet we're suspicious of politicians who are too devout. If you're too devout, you're thought of a "religious nut." There is a tipping point somewhere along the line. The tipping point for Ray Moore was when he disobeyed the court order.

M-M: Remind us of Ray's story.

Powell: He was a little-known judge who put up a plaque of the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courtroom. Someone filed a complaint, and the courts ordered him to take it down. He used that as the basis of running for the state Supreme Court. He won that seat on the basis of being "the Ten Commandments judge." When he got in, he installed a multi-ton granite monument (featuring the Ten Commandments) inside the Supreme Court building. The polls showed he was getting popular support on all this.

Eventually, he was ordered to take it out by a federal court, who ruled it violated the separation of church and state. He held a press conference and said he refused to do so. At that point, his popularity dropped. The state judicial board then disbarred him, so he lost his position. The popular response, according to the polls, was that was the proper decision. He then ran for governor in the Republican primary, assuming his religious support would be enough to win. But he only got 35 percent of the vote. By that point, he was a fringe candidate. This all took place within two years.

M-M: So why did his popularity fall so far, so fast?

Powell: You can reach the point where people start thinking you are using religion for your own personal political gain. That's the phrase we kept hearing from people: That he was using religion to promote himself. He's still out there giving speeches but not nearly as many as he used to, and he doesn't command the fees that he used to.

M-M: So his religiosity has been tainted.

Powell: Very much so. And this is Alabama — the center of the Bible Belt. We also looked at a 2004 U.S. Senate campaign here in Alabama, where there was a Democrat whose major campaign ad against his opponent in the primary featured his family standing around a dinner table, praying. We predicted he would lose, and he did.

Today, it's harder to find candidates who fit this profile. Word has gotten around (of the negative consequences of overt religiosity), and fewer and fewer people are doing it. We're looking at it right now with Sarah Palin, but she has been very careful not to use religious arguments in her public speeches. Her speech at the convention contained only indirect references to abortion.

M-M: Have politicians found a way to telegraph their beliefs to other believers without making them overt and thus offensive to nonbelievers?

Powell: I think so. At least, those who are very good at it — and she's good. They've figured out you have to do it in a muted manner to avoid the negative reaction that comes with it. The problem with (this approach) is people who are truly fanatics remain fanatics. When they start running, it will become apparent.

M-M: Palin apparently holds some quite extreme beliefs, including an opposition to abortion even in the case of rape or incest. Will she have to address that directly at some point?

Powell: Yes. I don't think you can finesse that.

M-M: It appears her beliefs have provided at least short-term benefits for the McCain campaign, since Christian conservatives are much more enthusiastic about the ticket than they were about McCain's solo candidacy.

Powell: It reminds me of the initial response to Judge Roy Moore here in Alabama. The problem with him was, the more people learned about him, the less thrilled they became. It took two years (before people rejected him as a fanatic). In two months, you might be able to pull it off.

M-M: Does your research suggest it would be fruitful or dangerous for Democrats to point out some of her more fringe beliefs and attempt to tag her an extremist?

Powell: It would be fruitful, but they'll need something specific. The stuff I've seen so far is just vague enough that it would be hard to pin down. (For an attack to stick) it would have to be about something that she did - something that could be verified. If you tried to attack her on the basis of what I have read so far, it would backfire. If you make the argument she's a right-wing religious nut without the specifics to back it up, people will be resistant to that.

M-M: In the paper on Moore, you and your co-authors Eduardo Neiva and Jessica Fulller list five negative ways an overtly religious candidate can be perceived: As self-serving, deceptive, hypocritical, fanatical or projecting a "holier-than-thou" attitude. The McCain-Palin campaign has been aggressive, even nasty; she has continued to repeat claims that have been shown to be untrue. Do they risk voters perceiving a disconnect between the personas of good Christian and amoral streetfighter? Could there be a problem if people sense Palin is talking the talk but not walking the walk?

Powell: I sense there is a major long-term problem there. You can put legitimate tags of "lying" on some of the things they've said. The Obama campaign or an independent group could come out with an ad saying, "This is supposed to be a values-laden campaign, but they're lying." That could be very effective.

I remember in 1992, the George Bush campaign put on an ad that was overtly and obviously inaccurate. The press pointed this out, but the person behind the ad said, "We know, but it's working, so we're going to keep it up." That was the moment when I started thinking Clinton would win.

M-M: Speaking of the Democrats, Senator Obama was widely criticized earlier in the race because of the fanaticism of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Do you expect the minster's angry face to turn up in TV ads before the campaign is over?

Powell: It would have. But the fact they had a preacher in Palin's church, while she was in the audience, talking about the sins of Israel (and linking the violence plaguing that nation to the people's refusal to recognize Christ as their savior) makes it a little more difficult for them to use that approach. I think there's a reluctance on the part of most people to blame anybody —Republican or Democrat — for something their pastor said. I'd hate to be responsible for everything I've heard from a preacher.

M-M: The Rev. Wright aside, Democrats seem more likely to embrace religion than they have been in the past. Is that a smart idea?

Powell: Yes. For a while now, one of the reasons Democrats were at a disadvantage is they were very uncomfortable talking about it. One of Obama's advantages is it doesn't bother him to talk about his faith. John Kerry looked very awkward bringing it up. Being willing to acknowledge (one's faith) is something voters want to hear. You can go back to John Kennedy and the Catholic issue in the 1960 election. The concern about him was not just that he was a Catholic, but that he would let his Catholic views influence the way he governed. In his speech (on the subject), he basically said, "I am a man of faith, but that will not affect the decisions I make as president." That's the fine line the voters are looking for. It is a very thin tightrope!

M-M: You are an academic with real-world experience. Can you talk a bit about your background?

Powell: I got my B.A. and M.A. at Auburn and Ph.D. in communications from the University of Florida. I study campaigns, not government. I taught for 11 years at Mississippi State University and then went into consulting for 11 years (before returning to academia at the University of Alabama at Birmingham a decade ago). My clients were mostly Democrats, although I've worked for both parties. I did polling primarily, along with some speechwriting and a few ads.

I knew I would go back to academics eventually. I figured it gave me a chance to see if the stuff I was studying worked in the real world. In fact, it did. My fear going into it was I would be behind the consultants, but I was actually two or three years ahead of them. Most of the consultants are fighting the last battle. They'll find a strategy that wins and use it over and over again. The academic community contends that you have to approach each campaign differently and start from scratch. Very few consultants actually do that.

M-M: It does appear the McCain campaign has copied the Karl Rove playbook that worked in 2000 and 2004. Are they taking a risk in doing so, since circumstances have changed so much since then?

Powell: Absolutely. We have never had a presidential campaign like this one. You have the first black presidential candidate, the first woman Republican vice presidential candidate and a surge in voter registration that throws off all past predictive models. Predicting the outcome is not a thing one should try to do right now. Polls are based on a specific turnout model that is nearly always based on the last campaign. That's just not going to hold up this time.

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