Giuliani gets motivated about religion

Giuliani speech1While it's still too early to be talking 2008 presidential politics, we can't help ourselves here at GetReligion, particularly when one of the country's major publications puts out a landmark piece on how religion will affect the potential candidacy of not just a particular candidate but of the entire race. Hanna Rosin's report in the September Atlantic is an excellent reference for those wondering how religion will affect the presidential hopes of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Rosin has a fairly good understanding of American religious thinking on politics, and masterfully applies that knowledge in the 2,200-word article. When it comes to how religion will affect the entire race, the article lacks a bit, but more on that later, since that was not the main point of the article.

Focusing on a scene in Iowa -- a "Get Motivated" business seminar in Des Moines -- Rosin uses Giuliani's words to show that he has at least an inkling of what it will take to connect with Americans on a spiritual level:

It's not the first time Giuliani has been the keynote speaker for a "Get Motivated" audience: he's been doing this, in different cities, nearly every three weeks for about the last three years. Standing there on the stage in Des Moines, surrounded by patriotic symbols and enough screaming midwesterners to fill a small town, the former mayor of New York seems like a guy who just might be presidential material.

Americans expect their president to talk like them, especially when it comes to matters of faith. This has little to do with actually going to church; it's about the delicate art of mastering what speechwriters sometimes call "evangelese." About 13 percent of the population constitutes what we think of as the hard-core Christian religious right; beyond them are a vaster number of what could be called "values voters." Values voters are generally Republican and less rigid on the usual cultural issues -- they might accept gay civil unions, for instance, or abortion under certain circumstances. They don't shout their demands from the steps of the Supreme Court, nor do they much want them shouted. When they evaluate political leaders, they're often looking for different, more subtle cues. They might want to know that a candidate's faith was deepened by a personal experience, that his or her life can be summed up as a story of struggle, redemption, and growth. Or they might just tap into a candidate's general sense of optimism and contentment -- a belief, rooted in Genesis and coloring all of life, that things happen for a reason. "Creationism Lite," you might call it -- an affirmational creed that carries its own emotional and intellectual style of thinking and speaking.

But Giuliani is not just an East Coaster who "can't do southern preacher," as Rosin puts it. He has skeletons in his closet that could by themselves alienate most of America. Rosin sees that there is something more to Giuliani than a competent manager who looks for results. There is an element of the "Church of Oprah" in him that could play out in some very interesting ways as Giuliani evolves into a full-fledged candidate:

Giuliani can't do southern preacher. Yet there's a current of spirituality running through his speech on the subject of 9/11, and how much that day shattered and then changed him. The crowd has waited eight hours to see him, so he is greeted as the star act. When the roaring dies down, he begins by poking fun at his own reputation for being controversial, telling a joke that features Pope John Paul II as the hero. Then he masters a trick all good politicians pull off: making his own success -- and thus himself -- seem accessible to anyone in the audience. "Are leaders born or made?" he asks. And of course he concludes they are made -- self-made -- by anyone with the will.

His speech continues as a list of "leadership principles" the political culture now considers close cousins to a conservative God-fearing temperament. "You've got to have a set of convictions," he says, and praises Ronald Reagan's belief that the Berlin Wall could not hold. "You have to be an optimist," he says, and encourages the members of the audience to "follow your hopes and dreams." You've got to have "courage, and be able to deal with fear," he says. When he gets to principle No. 4 -- "Be prepared" -- he veers into what could almost pass for a religious testimonial. The morning of September 11, 2001, he says, was the "worst experience of my life ... You prepare for everything you can think of, but you can't prepare for this." He says he stood watching debris fall from the Twin Towers and realized that it was, in fact, people jumping. He was lost, without a plan. Yet somehow he found sources of inspiration and strength. He remembered what he'd always known: the "value of teamwork," the need to "be there when the going gets tough." This is when people in the front rows of the audience begin to take out their cell-phone cameras and snap pictures of him. For a few moments the business seminar has taken on shades of something deeper, more meaningful -- a great political speech, church, Oprah.

He ends on a note of hope, telling a story about one of the New York City firefighters giving a bear hug to President Bush. Giuliani does not mention God except once, in a joke. But his speech is infused with the kind of uplifting message that, these days, shares boundaries with preaching: "You've got to care about people," he says. "In fact, you have to love them."

. . . Forget about abortion and gay rights for a moment. In the "Get Motivated" world, it doesn't matter what you're selling; it matters who you are, and how you sell. It matters that people believe you, trust in you. Giuliani "is like Reagan, only more results-oriented," says the Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "And people are willing to vote for people they don't agree with if they see character. They are so desperate for someone to lift their spirits."

So there you have it. Will Giuliani's Church of Oprah theology work with Americans? One of the things that I thought Rosin could have addressed more was how the 13 percent of Americans who consider themselves part of the "hard-core Christian religious right" would react to Giuliani, or to anyone not falling in step with their hard-line beliefs.

I think it's established that they would oppose Giulani, but how stridently? How would that opposition affect Giuliani, or anyone else in the race? And finally, how would opposing a candidate like Giuliani affect the political influence of the "hard-core Christian right," particularly if he won the nomination?

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