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The Sun, San Bernardino, Calif. * April 8, 2005 * by Sue Doyle

CLAREMONT – Considering a run for the presidency? Better pull out your thesaurus to plant religious buzz words in your speeches and policies that will resonate well with voters.

And after assuming office, it doesn’t hurt to be seen at church or to hold Bible study sessions in the White House.

That was the message delivered Thursday on the third and final day of a conference on “Religion and the American Presidency’ at Claremont McKenna College, where educators from throughout the nation discussed the role of Catholicism, evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Jews in politics.

‘Language is the most important tool a president has,’ said David Leege, author and professor emeritus from Notre Dame University. “If you try to attract a certain voting block, you will use a strident language to mobilize them.’

Leege said that Ronald Reagan and President Bush originally used the word “pro-choice’ on the campaign trail and in speeches. But when they realized that evangelical voters were restless about the issue, they tapped into it and changed the syntax to “right to life’ and “culture of life.’

The change in wording spoke directly to that block of voters, making the presidents more appealing.

At the same time, Democrats went in the other direction to appeal to women in the work force and used words such as a “woman’s right to choose.’ That may have worked with Democratic voters, but it polarizes swing voters who are crucial for a win.

Leege said that if the language is too strong, it scares away voters. When that happens, politicians turn to more moderate words.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., for example, is using softer language these days about the abortion issue that appeals to both sides. She still defends abortion but says people should do everything they can to reduce them. Clinton encourages others in the Democratic Party to accept this language.

“Politicians use speech for political purposes. There are speech writers who in part write speeches that connect with audiences. And you need to know your audience,’ said Corwin Smidt, political science teacher at Calvin College and director of the Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics.

Reagan, who was known as the Great Communicator, connected well with people because he kept his language simple and optimistic. Known for saying things such as “it’s a new day,’ Reagan kept his messages easy and they worked with constituents.

“If you can find something that’s simple, most people will go for that politically,’ said Smidt.

Whether it was scenes shown on TV of Bill and Hillary Clinton leaving church on Sundays or words from religious hymns embedded into George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address, presidents use religion as a way to reach out to constituents, said Adam Warber, author and assistant professor of political science at Clemson University.

The Bush administration, for example, was the first to develop a unit within the White House devoted to religious issues with the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

But Bush’s religious intentions were no match for Beltway politics. After he established the office, Bush didn’t have a clear direction in which to steer it. The White House focused on tax cuts and education instead, Warber said.

Still Bush refers to the office every once in awhile in speeches and on camera, although it hasn’t done much of anything. But its very existence represents a religious position that resonates well with some voters.

“It has become a political tool,’ said Warber. “He has a rhetorical strategy that he knows won’t work in the end.’

Zahid Bukhari, director of the American Muslim studies program at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, was scheduled to speak on Muslims and the presidency, but an illness kept him from attending.

Also scheduled to speak about Jews and the presidency was Rabbi David Dalin, an author and a history and political-science teacher at Florida’s Ave Maria University. Dalin was too ill to travel.

Scripps College student Miriam Lazewatsky, 20, read Dalin’s paper to the audience.

(original article)

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