A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the Republican candidate for Governor, Dan Forest. The post included a video of a speech Forest gave on M.L.K. Day. The controversy surrounding the speech was covered in state-wide news, and some national sites even picked up on it.
Well, I watched the video again. Then I watched it a few more times.
I put my lawyer cap on and tried to look at it objectively, focusing not so much on what was said, but on what was happening in the room. What struck me as I continued to replay it was that Forest has his intended audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Those in attendance even began to enthusiastically quote Bible verses back to Forest.
The speech could easily be a sermon, Forest a preacher, and his audience a congregation at any evangelical church in North Carolina on any given Sunday. This is what gives it political power. You can criticize the content, but you can’t really argue against its effectiveness.
The Political Power of Preaching
First off, this isn’t a case study in evangelical politics. I’m not going to discuss abortion, or gay marriage, or the bathroom bill. This is about an oratory skill that certain individuals possess in politics.
I’m talking about a politician’s ability to “preach” to his/her audience, regardless of the content of their speech or the “content of their character.” (This post started with M.L.K., after all.)
The power of preaching can be used to draw out a person’s deepest emotions. Human emotions can be relatively positive (hope, justice, compassion) or they can be negative (anger, fear, retribution). Regardless, the people that matter in politics are prospective voters. Emotions drive these voters to the polls. When that happens, assuming your preaching didn’t backfire, you win.
Oratory skills can make up for a lot of deficiencies in politics. They can also be used as a spring-board for fame and higher office. The “Cross of Gold” Speech, in which William Jennings Bryan evoked the literal crucificiction of the working man by elites, made him a national superstar.
Most contemporary press accounts attributed Bryan’s nomination to his eloquence, though in the case of Republican and other gold-favoring newspapers, they considered it his demagoguery. The pro-silver Cleveland Plain Dealer called Bryan’s speech “an eloquent, stirring, and manly appeal”. The Chicago Tribune reported that Bryan had lit the spark “which touched off the trail of gun-powder.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch opined that with the speech, Bryan “just about immortalized himself”.
The current president has been compared to Bryan often. Here’s a story from the Wall Street Journal, describing Bryan as “The Trump Before Trump.” According to the Journal, “Both men used their communication skills to upend well-established political hierarchies.”
Care for a recent Democratic example? How about this one…..
Barack Obama does not win the Democratic Nomination in 2008 without that speech. It just doesn’t happen.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to be “flashy” like Bryan, Trump, and Obama to be an effective political preacher.
Robert Kennedy wasn’t master orator. In fact, he was probably below-average. He just kind of talks his way through it, but he draws out some of the purest emotion that a heart can imagine. The man could “preach.”
RFK’s “preaching” power lies in the depth and quality of his words as well as the steady conviction with which he serves them.
Tar Heel Preachers
Despite being the in the Bible Belt and the home-place of Billy Graham, North Carolina politics have been somewhat devoid of the kind of preaching we see on the national stage. You can go back to Jesse Helms for a little firebranding, but for the most part, we’re a little too “reserved” in our politics.
Our current Senators, Burr and Tillis, are low-key men. They’re simply not ones to get you inspired or stirred up. Burr doesn’t even bother wearing socks, after all.
The last man I can think of that had the oratory skills I’m describing (and still does despite his age) is Jim Hunt. Kay Hagan didn’t. Pat McCrory didn’t. Roy Cooper doesn’t.
So we have to wonder whether the Tar Heel State needs a preacher in 2020?
I think it might…
The Right Side
My first post of the year was about the concept of “fear” in the 2020 election. Well, that was before the outbreak of the coronavirus. You could say that we’re in an uncertain time right now.
We’re also in a massively divisive time in terms of partisan politics. I’m not going to get into that. It’s self-evident, and if it’s not, pay attention to the impeachment vote in the Senate in a few days.
So we have a lot of uncertainty, some fear, and a huge partisan fight going on. Where do people turn when all this happens?
I think it comes down to whether you’re in the fight or not. If you’re on the outside looking in, it’s easy to shrug off these feelings. One “preacher” made that same mistake, and it cost him a lot of votes, although he still won the election:
I don’t think we have the “elitist” luxury of sitting back and analyzing this fight in 2020. We’re all in it this time. Trump picked a fight for the whole country. Democrats answered the call by impeaching him, and 2020 is shaping up to mean more than a normal election.
Everyone wants to be right.
The man who can make Tar Heel voters feel and believe that they are on the right side of this partisan war will win the Governor’s race.
Roy Cooper better step up his game. He’s got a preacher comin’ for him.
Out here in the middle
Where the center’s on the right
And the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night
Savin’ lonely souls
In the dashboard light.
Excellent, Matt. Very well done.