George McGovern

October 26, 2012

Former U.S. Senator George McGovern passed away Sunday. The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, he made a mark on his party even as he lost in a landslide election. He is also a notable figure to consider when thinking about the changing role religion has played in presidential politics. As I argue in my book, Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, religious rhetoric began to play a different and more substantial role in the 1976 election (and continues to play essentially the same role now). So McGovern offers a peak at the last election before the religious shift. McGovern was not only the son of a Methodist minister, but he even briefly attended seminary and briefly served as a Methodist pastor. Yet, he not only avoided mentioning this religious background during his campaign, but even worked to keep it from being mentioned by the media. That is quite a shift from how Jimmy Carter emphasized his church involvement as a Sunday School teacher to help his campaign just four years later. In 1980--as Carter was out-God-talked by Ronald Reagan--McGovern also got booted from the U.S. Senate as one of the main targets of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. A one-time pastor got booted for allegedly not being a "moral" leader. With religion and politics married, political concerns trumped religious ones so that McGovern and Carter were sent packing while a man who rarely attended church was ushered into the Oval Office. Like many other politicians, McGovern found himself a victim of shifting religious-political winds.

On another note, it is important to note McGovern's passion for fighting poverty and hunger. Throughout his political career--including after he left the U.S. Senate--McGovern helped lead bipartisan efforts on these critical issues. Republican Bob Dole, another man who lost a presidential election, was a frequent partner with McGovern on hunger and poverty efforts. Dole wrote a nice Washington Post column remembering his friend and fellow laborer. Another good remembrance of McGovern's efforts came this week in a Bread for the World piece. Hopefully more politicians today will follow the McGovern-Dole model of working across party lines for the "least of these."