Reagan Symposium Tackles Once-Taboo Topics

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The 8th annual Ronald Reagan Symposium at Regent University, "God and Man in the Oval Office" took on the two topics that were once considered socially taboo--religion and politics. 

Top Reagan experts from around the country noted that all U.S. presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama have spoken to issues of faith--and for good reason.
"When presidents speak they want to speak to their audience and at a level that the audience can relate to," said Dr. Martin Medhurst, professor of rhetoric and political science at Baylor University, "religious rhetoric helps them do that even if all they do is end their speech with 'God bless America.'"
"It resonates with people that we're not just squabbling about taxes and that sort of thing but that we have a common purpose together as Americans," said Dr. Thomas Kidd, professor of history at Baylor.
Dr. Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College, says Ronald Reagan's 1983 "Evil Empire" speech to the National Association of Evangelicals meeting in Orlando was one of the most effective uses of religion in politics. 

In describing the Soviet Union as "the focus of evil in the modern world" Reagan framed the Cold War in moral terms and helped to bring down the Soviet empire.
"Sometimes words like that, words as weapons, can be even more powerful than any fleet of cruise missiles or Navy ships," Kengor said.  
Still, experts at the symposium agreed that presidential use of religion is not always appropriate and can be abusive. 

"Where I see it is when presidents make claims that are based on selective interpretation of Scripture or misleading interpretations of Scripture," said Dr. Gary Scott Smith, professor of history at Grove City College.  "we need to recognize that our presidents are laymen with regard to theology and Bible understanding."
The symposium speakers gave President Obama high marks for using religious speech effectively.

"He has a lot of experience in the church," Kidd said. "He's very comfortable with religious language. I remember on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 he read Psalm 46."

But, they note, the president's policies that critics say restrict religious liberty, like the contraception mandate in Obamacare, have created confusion about his deepest beliefs about faith.
As for the future, Americans should expect more conversation about religion from their presidents but also be prepared for some change. 

"As the American population diversifies and more religions become more prominent I think you are going to see more recognition of that in the public rhetoric of the presidents."
One dynamic that may not change is the demands of the Oval office which over time invite presidents to seek Divine help. 

"At some point the job becomes so overwhelming that you've got to look outside of yourself and for every president that we've ever had," Kengor said. "They've looked upward."

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Heather Sells

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