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Mar  2009 26
Taboo Topics--Religion & Politics

Professor Discusses Religion and Politics at Faith Matters Seminar

For Joseph Bessler, the interest began in July of 1992. While watching then-candidate Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, Joe realized the central theme of Clinton’s speech was the “New Covenant” language used throughout the talk.

As a theology professor at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Joe was immediately intrigued. “The language of the covenant traces its roots in American history to the Puritans, and thus to the beginnings of American political discourse,” said Joe. “The language of the ‘new covenant’ has explicit religious significance in Christian theology—the new covenant is brought by Jesus as the Christ to renew humankind. When I analyzed Clinton’s speech, I was surprised to find a very close fit between the major moves of the entire address and the major topics of Christian theology.”

For several years, Bessler thought the similarity was unique to Clinton. However, in 1996 he saw a similar pattern in Bob Dole’s address and again in George Bush’s 2000 address. “Only then did I suspect that the candidates’ use of religious language stemmed from a more primal need to answer basic questions of leadership, and that those questions of leadership may underlie both political and theological speech,” said Bessler.

Now, Joe has turned his interest in the taboo topics of religion and politics into a seminar he presented on Monday, March 9 at Southern Hills Christian Church in Edmond. Political Faith: How Candidates Use Religion focused on how political candidates draw upon religious language to shape their political speeches.

In this session Joe discussed the five topics he has identified that candidates for political office must interpret persuasively and coherently in order to have a solid chance of winning an election. “I used examples from presidential candidates over the last 30 years, especially the convention acceptance speeches of Barack Obama and John McCain, to illustrate how these topics—which parallel topics in Christian theology—shape the flow, success, and failure of different candidacies and campaigns.”

Bessler hoped that attendees would walk away from the presentation discussing their ideas of both religion and politics. “Once people understand the structures that shape political speeches they can begin to understand not just ‘how’ but ‘why’ the speeches of political candidates echo, overlap, and borrow religious language in order to project a vision of the nation and of themselves as leaders. If my audience can begin to identify the moves of a political speech, they will never again simply dismiss or naively believe a political candidate. By the same token, if they can begin to see the political dimensions of religious/theological language they will be better able to begin to think about their faith.”

Faith Matters was a six-week series of free presentations designed for lay leaders and the general public. In fall 2009, the seminary will offer the series again in Tulsa and then again in Edmond, OK in spring 2010.

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