Running for president

In 1996, James Dobson tried to give presidential candidate Phil Gramm some good advice about people of faith, Americans that Dobson described as the “good family people, trying to raise their kids, trying to keep them moral, trying to teach them what they believe.” The head of Focus on the Family counseled my fellow Texan, “Senator, if you would home in on those people and speak their language and talk to their hearts and identify with the things they care about instead of just talking about taxes, the economy and money, they care about more than money. If you will do this, you will have millions of people following you.”

The candidate didn’t understand, not at all. Although Gramm’s response has been widely and earthily misquoted as “I ain’t no preacher, and I can’t do that,” Dobson later reported that Gramm actually responded, “I’m not a preacher and I can’t do that.” To that, Dobson snapped, “Senator, you will never reach our people,” got up, and walked out. Millions followed and Gramm exited the race.

Too many of the current GOP candidates would be similarly puzzled by Dobson’s still-relevant advice. They confuse “talking to people’s hearts” with “running for preacher.” Even more frightening is the prospect that Dobson’s message is embraced by top Democratic candidates. They even seem keen to do a little preaching. Perhaps as at no time since Jimmy Carter’s improbable run to victory in 1976, the Democrats’ candidates collectively evidence more piety than our Republicans do.

Republicans should carefully scrutinize Dobson’s counsel. He didn’t ask Gramm to go to church. He didn’t propose a missionary journey. No tithing, monastic retreats, or singing in the choir was mentioned. Dobson asked Gramm simply to “speak their language and talk to their hearts.” The pastor didn’t entirely insist that a presidential candidate “walk the walk.” He merely implored Gramm to “talk the talk.”

In some respects, this is the essence of genuine Christian piety. For the most part, true religion is an “in your closet” experience. Jesus was suspicious of street prayers. The Apostle Peter articulated the appropriate Christian strategy for God-talk in public: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Writing that from Nero’s Rome, Peter probably knew a thing or two about mixing and matching politics and religion.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards all seem to have a knack for doing exactly what Peter recommends. Instead of ducking whenever the debate or press questions turn to faith and religion, they seem eager to share their faith and hope. Obama dwells on his conversion experiences. Hillary Clinton discusses curriculum strategies for Methodist Sunday School teachers. The other night, in the CNN/YouTube debate, John Edwards authentically reflected on his Baptist faith that prevents him from expediently supporting gay marriage.

By comparison, when GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani is asked about faith or religion, all we get is a dry and aloof discourse on “Judeo-Christian values.” It’s just babble, not genuine talk from his heart and to the listeners’ hearts. What about John McCain? Well, like good buddy Phil Gramm, let’s just say “he ain’t runnin’ to be no preacher.”

The only current GOP candidates who get Dobson’s drift are Mormon Mitt Romney and back-benchers Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback. Romney’s current ad campaign looks like Dobson conceived it.  The “Oceans” commercial speaks of cleaning up the world in which families raise children. Romney wants people of faith to see him as their partner in this challenging quest. Other Republican campaigns should take note. This is the right message. But like Mormon founder Joseph Smith before him, Romney’s just the wrong messenger.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.