God Wills It

Presidents and the Political Use of Religion

God Wills It is a comprehensive study of presidential religious rhetoric. Using careful analysis of hundreds of transcripts, David O’Connell reveals the hidden strategy behind presidential religious speech. He asks when and why religious language is used, and when it is, whether such language is influential.

Case studies explore the religious arguments presidents have made to defend their decisions on issues like defense spending, environmental protection, and presidential scandals. O’Connell provides strong evidence that when religious rhetoric is used public opinion typically goes against the president, the media reacts harshly to his words, and Congress fails to do as he wants. An experimental chapter casts even further doubt on the persuasiveness of religious rhetoric.

God Wills It shows that presidents do not talk this way because they want to. Presidents like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were quite uncomfortable using faith to promote their agendas. They did so because they felt they must. God Wills It shows that even if presidents attempt to call on the deity, the more important question remains: Will God come when they do?






“This sharply original contribution, to our understanding of when, how, and to what effect presidents use language and thoughts that resonate with Biblical references and evoke key religious beliefs and values, illuminates our understanding of the rhetorical presidency. This is a riveting book full of rich case material and surprising findings, especially those that concern the scope and the limitations of such talk for mobilizing support for public policies that presidents desire.”

—Ira I. Katznelson, Columbia University



“A well written and researched study about an important topic. The results will surprise many, and should stimulate discussion and debate among political scientists, sociologists, and scholars of communications.”

—Clyde Wilcox, Georgetown University


“This book is important reading for anyone interested in how American presidents have attempted to lead public opinion and how difficult that is. The author engagingly and persuasively uses case studies and a compelling experiment to show definitively, as I see it, that religious appeals are not likely to be an effective strategy in attempting to change people’s minds. Such appeals may have their place to steady or bolster the nation during crises or other anxious times, but they are not good tools for overcoming public resistance to policies that presidents wish to pursue.”

—Robert Y. Shapiro, Columbia University


“Religious rhetoric can bring us together (communitarian) or divide us (coalitional). On the latter David O’Connell has unearthed a paradox wrapped in a dilemma. The paradox is that presidents rarely make public appeals using overtly religious rhetoric, despite the well-known fact that the United States is the most religious among the industrialized countries. In tracking religious rhetoric from Truman through Bush-II, O’Connell find only nine distinct episodes confined to four policy domains: foreign affairs (Eisenhower and Reagan trashing those godless Communists; both Bushes rationalizing just wars), civil rights (JFK and LBJ), scandals (Ford and Clinton), and the environment (Carter). Curiously the Quaker Nixon and Bible-belt Truman never exploited religious rhetoric for strategic political purposes. The dilemma is that religious rhetoric is wholly ineffective in helping presidents achieve their goals of increased popularity, media support, and congressional success. So why bother? When do presidents use religious rhetoric and why are those sectarian appeals not effective? The bottom line is that religious rhetoric doomed each effort at presidential leadership because it was a desperate act of last resort during a ‘crisis’ period. O’Connell’s analysis gives added weight to those scholarly doubts that presidential rhetoric has much, if any, impact on politics or policy. God Wills It is a must read for all presidential scholars, students of political communications, and religion and politics devotees.”

—Raymond Tatalovich, Loyola University Chicago