Research poses questions about politicians' God-talk

By staff writers
18 Sep 2008

New research published this week by Theos, a church-backed theology think tank, suggests that there is a growing use of 'God talk' by party political leaders in their conference speeches.

The research, released to coincide with the start of the major party conferences, examines the use of 'God talk' in the speeches of party leaders over the last decade (1998-2007). It covers the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders, but does not include the Greens or other smaller parties.

The greatest number of religious references, claims the research, occurred in 2001 when each of the speeches was delivered within weeks of the 9/11 attacks. Since 2001, however, there has been a continued rise in the use of religious rhetoric.

The increase is not only explained by a concern about Islamism but also reflects a growing awareness of faith groups and their positive contribution in society, says Theos.

Despite Alistair Campbell's comment to a journalist in 2003 that "We don’t do God", Labour, under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has made most use of 'God talk'. In the ten conference speeches examined, Labour's leaders have made 98 religious references compared with 65 for the Conservatives and 23 for the Liberal Democrats.

Tony Blair dominated the field with a total of 84 references, compared with David Cameron's 25 and Iain Duncan-Smith's 24. That had much to do with the length of Blair's time in office - he made 9 speeches during the period, compared with three each from Cameron and Duncan-Smith.

On the basis of averages, however, it is the Prime Minister who has used religious references most. In his one speech in 2007 (in which he famously referred to "the sermons my father preached Sunday after Sunday") Gordon Brown made 14 religious references, compared with Blair's average of 9.3 and Cameron’s 8.3.

The Theos research explored direct religious references, rhetoric or allusions and the tone of the references (i.e. positive, negative or neutral). The study reveals that the rhetoric is overwhelmingly positive (69%), compared with only 13% negative. In contrast to a comparative analysis of US presidential speeches, the use of religious rhetoric by UK political leaders is notably more subtle and indirect.

In the UK, leaders often talk about faith but 'God' is referred to directly only 7 times in the 30 speeches analysed. In comparison, George W. Bush invoked God in 94% of presidential addresses through the first six years of his presidency.

Commenting on the findings of the research, the director of Theos, Paul Woolley, said: "The increase in references to religious faith reflects an increased awareness of, and interest in, religious groups in our society.

He added: "Faith groups represent a growing constituency in society... In some respects, politicians cannot afford not to do God. [But] talking God is not the same as ‘doing God’. It is entirely right that politicians should draw on religion to shape and inspire their rhetoric, but that is no substitute for what the Christian tradition sees as good leadership - governing with justice and mercy."

Simon Barrow, co-director of religion and society think tank Ekklesia, which is more critical of both institutional religion and corporate politics, said today: "This research will make interesting reading and digesting. Religious language has frequently been used and abused in the institutional political arena."

He added: "That there is more or less 'God talk' is not the real issue. The real concern is 'what does this mean for the integrity of both religion and politics?' Public scepticism about politicians' 'God-bothering' may turn out to have more theological validity than the enthusiasm of some Christians that their faith should be constantly name-checked. There is all the difference in the world between using religious language to get 'God on your side' or appease institutional religious concerns, and allowing the radical message of the Gospel to question vested political and religious interests. There appears to be little of the latter revealed by this research."

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Theos' findings in summary (http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/):

1. Labour has made most use of ‘God talk’, making 98 religious references and allusions in the ten party conference speeches examined, compared with 65 for the Conservatives and 23 for the Liberal Democrats.

2. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Tony Blair dominates the field with a total of 84 references, compared with David Cameron’s 25 and Ian Duncan-Smith’s 24. That has much to do with Blair longevity – he made 9 speeches during this period, compared with three each from Cameron and Duncan-Smith.

3. On the basis of averages, Gordon Brown makes most references per speech. In 2007, his one speech (in which he famously referred “the sermons my father preached Sunday after Sunday”) contains 14 references, compared with Blair’s average of 9.3 references per speech and Cameron’s 8.3.

4. There is a clear divide between leaders who appear comfortable with ‘God talk’ – Brown, Blair, Cameron and Duncan-Smith – each of whom made over 8 references per speech, and those who were not – Hague, Campbell, Kennedy, Howard and Ashdown – each of whom make fewer than 5 per speech. This does not mean that other leaders are wholly uncomfortable with religious language, however. William Hague, for example, makes considerable references to faith in other (non party-conference) speeches, and he was notably the first party political leader to address the Spring Harvest Christian festival in April 2000.

5. Time plays a significant factor. Unsurprisingly, there is a spike in 2001, when each of the speeches was delivered within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks. In 2001, the three leaders between them made over 50 religious references, Blair making 32 compared with Duncan-Smith’s 16, and Charles Kennedy’s five.

6. Despite 9/11, there is a general upward trend in religious rhetoric. Prior to 2001 (i.e. 1998-2000) there are, on average, 11 references and allusions made in party conference speeches per year, whereas after 2001 there are over 16.5. This increase is driven, in the first instance, by the specific threat of Islamist terrorism but also, more generally, reflects the increased presence of religion as a significant national and geopolitical issue.

7. The rhetoric of each party was also examined by Theos for its tone. Is it being used positively, negatively, or without any obvious tone to it?

8. The result is that the rhetoric is overwhelmingly positive, with a large proportion (nearly 69%) of references in the speeches across all three parties being used in a positive way, with only 13% of the usage being negative. Much of that negative rhetoric comes, perhaps surprisingly, from the Conservatives, who sometimes used Tony Blair’s widely-known Christian faith against him.

9. In contrast with a comparative analysis of US presidential speeches, the use of religious rhetoric by British political leaders is notably more subtle and indirect. UK leaders may talk a lot about faith related issues, but God himself appears only 7 times in the 30 speeches analysed. In comparison, George W. Bush invoked ‘God’ in 94% of presidential addresses through the first six years of his presidency.

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