TIME politics

50 Years Ago, the State of the Union Actually Meant Something

Lyndon B. Johnson
President Lyndon B. Johnson giving the State of the Union Address in 1965 Bill Eppridge—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

In 1965, LBJ's speech to Congress was ambitious—but also realistic

Fifty years ago today, 1.2 million Americans thronged to Washington to witness and participate in Lyndon Johnson’s second inauguration, which was the most elaborate in U.S. History. The extravaganza, featuring concerts, balls, banquets and receptions, was said to cost $1.5 million. No inauguration before that time–or thereafter until Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009–had attracted so many people.

The speech he gave that day echoed the State of the Union address he had delivered 17 days earlier, in which he had called for congressional approval of a host of Great Society programs: large-scale federal aid, for the first time in U. S. history, for elementary and education; ambitious new medical programs for the elderly (Medicare) and for many low-income people (Medicaid); more funding for his War on Poverty, which Congress had approved in 1964; national support for the arts and the humanities; overhaul of the nation’s racist immigration laws; and many other domestic reforms. And, as Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was joining a struggle for voting rights in Selma, Ala., Johnson also promised to ask Congress for the elimination of “every remaining obstacle to the right to vote.”

It was, to say the least, an ambitious series of requests. But the scope of his demands is not what sets LBJ’s State of Union apart from the one President Obama will deliver on Tuesday, a half-century later. Obama’s speech is likely to be full of requests he’s already started to roll out—but Johnson’s speech included requests that, crucially, he actually expected the legislature to make happen. January of 1965 was perhaps the peak of U.S. liberal optimism, and the last year where a President might reasonably have expectations as high as Johnson’s. But how did we get from there to here?

The most obvious reason is that LBJ enjoyed huge congressional majorities in 1965 (295-140 in the House, and 68-32 in the Senate). No president since FDR in the early 1930s had such political advantages. Nor has any president since that time. But his backers were not limited to Congress. Indeed, popular expectations for liberal domestic reforms were stronger 50 years ago than they had been since the early 1930s. According to polls, 75% of Americans believed that they could “trust government to do the right thing most of the time.”

Underlying this extraordinary public confidence in January 1965 was an economy that had been booming since 1961. TIME, in an essay titled “Boom Without Bust,” rhapsodized, “economic policy has begun to liberate itself from the preoccupations of an earlier day and from the bitterness of class or partisan division that becloud rational discussion and hamper national action.”

Except for serious controversies over race—a big except, obviously—social harmony also seemed equally strong in January 1965. New York Times columnist James Reston foresaw an “Era of Good Feelings.” TIME, in a cover story titled “On the Fringe of a Golden Era,” celebrated the decline of generational tensions. “The classic conflict between parents and children,” it prophesized, “is letting up.”

The United States, moreover, was at peace in January 1965. The closest Johnson came in his inaugural to suggesting that the nation might go to war in Vietnam (which he did not mention) was one sentence: “If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries that we barely know, that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant.”

Antiwar protesters were scattered and weak. The Students for a Democratic Society, which was soon to challenge LBJ’s military policies, claimed only 1,365 paid-up members at the time of its national convention in December 1964.

All that would soon change.

Within the next seven months, explosive racial confrontations, especially in the Watts area of Los Angeles that August, hastened the militancy of black civil rights leaders and the weakening of interracial strategies for change. These were also months of enormous military escalation of American troops in Vietnam. In January 1965, some 23,000 American “military advisers” were stationed there. By the end of year, which featured daily bombings of North Vietnam, 184,000 of our soldiers were fighting in Vietnam.

In these ways, the year 1965 featured unprecedented change. What we now think of as “The Sixties,” a time of extraordinary social turmoil and political polarization, had arrived. Liberalism, seemingly all-powerful in January, had fallen under siege. Ronald Reagan, who captured the governorship in California, led a Republican resurgence at the polls in 1966.

By that point, Johnson and his Democratic Congress had nonetheless achieved all his important domestic goals–notably a Voting Rights Act, federal aid to education, immigration reform, and establishment of Medicare and Medicaid. No congressional session in modern American history had managed to do more—and, since then, no presidential administration has dared to seek anything like the huge bundle of reforms that Congress enacted 50 years ago. On the contrary, conservatives threaten some of accomplishments of 1965, notably voting rights and immigration reform.

So it is that as President Obama delivers his own State of the Union address today, he will do so anticipating that many of his proposals will fall on deaf ears. A man who is well versed in recent American history, he can only dream that the extraordinary liberal mood of 1965 will some day return.

eve of destruction
Basic Books

James T. Patterson is professor of history emeritus at Brown University, and author of The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America (Basic Books, 2012, paper 2014).

Read TIME’s original 1965 reaction to Johnson’s State of the Union that year, here in the TIME Vault: A Modern Utopia

TIME conflict

Freed Iranian Hostages Weren’t Sure Whether to Criticize Carter or Thank Him

Free After 444 Days
United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days, in January of 1981 Express / Getty Images

Jan. 20, 1981: Iran releases 52 Americans who have been held hostage for 444 days

When the Iran Hostage Crisis ended on this day, Jan. 20, in 1981, 52 Americans were freed after being subjected to “acts of barbarism,” as President Carter phrased it, for 444 days.

The crisis had started with American support for the Iranian Shah in the 1970s; when Iranian revolutionaries declared him anti-Islamic and forced him from office in 1979, they quickly moved on to their next target: the American embassy in Tehran, where a group of students took more than 60 people hostage. Iran’s new leader released those among the group who were female, black or non-U.S. citizens, saying that they had already suffered “the oppression of American society.”

Called spies by the Iranians, they were physically and mentally tormented to an extent the American public was unaware of at the time. It was later reported that, in addition to regular beatings, they were subjected to mock firing squads and games of Russian roulette. Many of the hostages later said they never expected to survive the ordeal; TIME reported that one of Iran’s Foreign Ministers thought the hostages could be held “more or less forever.”

Though he was wrong, the situation did end up costing President Carter the 1980 election, many believe, since it was hard to appeal to the public when, for more than a year, the evening news regularly broadcast images of angry Iranian mobs shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Carter.”

But as for the hostages themselves, they had mixed feelings for Carter, whose policies could be blamed for getting them into the crisis, but who worked with single-minded devotion to get them out. During his last few days in office, he worked nearly around the clock on the final negotiations that secured their release, occupying the Oval Office until 15 minutes before Ronald Reagan arrived for his inauguration.

The hostages were released minutes after Reagan was sworn in. Carter flew to Germany to meet with them. The encounter was bittersweet. According to the New York Times’ account, the hostages sat in a circle, passing around copies of American newspapers Carter had brought with him, all bearing headlines about their release. Some were critical of the former president. One asked why a botched rescue mission Carter had authorized the previous spring hadn’t been tried sooner; another asked whether it should have been attempted at all.

But they applauded when he said that the Iranians had not succeeded in their attempts to extort money from the U.S., using the hostages as leverage.

When Carter left, L. Bruce Laingen, the ranking diplomatic officer among the former hostages, escorted him to his limousine. According to the Times, “Mr. Laingen embraced the former President once, held him at arms length and then embraced him a second time before letting him go.”

Read a 1981 account of what the hostages went through, here in the TIME Vault: The Long Ordeal of the Hostages

TIME state of the union

Watch 5 Years of Obama’s State of the Union Addresses in 90 Seconds

How things have changed

President Obama will give his seventh annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, giving a temperature reading of the nation before both Houses of Congress and a TV audience of millions.

The speech is a platform for the president to give a progress report of how the country has fared over the past year, and to set out plans for the coming one.

It is also a good indicator of how the president and the country have changed from year to year. Watch this compilation of five years of Obama’s State of the Union Address.

TIME politics

7 State of the Union Quotes That Sound Like Lines From Spider-Man

Even before Spider-Man existed!

With great power comes great responsibility. The oft-quoted Spider-Man line dates back, in one form or another, to Spidey’s earliest days, in the 1960s — but for at least a century before that, U.S. Presidents have been saying pretty much the same thing.

The constitution requires the President to talk to Congress about the state of the union — though the fact that he does so annually and with an in-person speech is more a matter of tradition — so the record of such addresses dates all the way back to 1790. Unsurprisingly, the themes evolve: early messages tended to focus on whether the U.S. stood a chance of continuing to exist; those in the middle years, which were not delivered as speeches, read more like interoffice memos; more recent ones, especially since they began to be broadcast to citizens, are full of feel-good inspiration.

But one theme has been constant: with great power comes, well, you know…

Abraham Lincoln in 1862: “We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”

William McKinley in 1899: “Presented to this Congress are great opportunities. With them come great responsibilities. The power confided to us increases the weight of our obligations to the people, and we must be profoundly sensible of them as we contemplate the new and grave problems which confront us. Aiming only at the public good, we cannot err.”

Theodore Roosevelt in 1902: “As a people we have played a large part in the world, and we are bent upon making our future even larger than the past. In particular, the events of the last four years have definitely decided that, for woe or for weal, our place must be great among the nations. We may either fall greatly or succeed greatly; but we can not avoid the endeavor from which either great failure or great success must come. Even if we would, we can not play a small part. If we should try, all that would follow would be that we should play a large part ignobly and shamefully.”

Calvin Coolidge in 1923: “The time has come for a more practical use of moral power, and more reliance upon the principle that right makes its own might. Our authority among the nations must be represented by justice and mercy. It is necessary not only to have faith, but to make sacrifices for our faith. The spiritual forces of the world make all its final determinations. It is with these voices that America should speak. Whenever they declare a righteous purpose there need be no doubt that they will be heard. America has taken her place in the world as a Republic–free, independent, powerful. The best service that can be rendered to humanity is the assurance that this place will be maintained.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945: We cannot deny that power is a factor in world politics any more than we can deny its existence as a factor in national politics. But in a democratic world, as in a democratic Nation, power must be linked with responsibility, and obliged to defend and justify itself within the framework of the general good.” (FDR would have loved Spider-Man, if it’s any indication that his 1938 address also said that “in every case power and responsibility must go hand in hand.”)

John F. Kennedy in 1963: “In short, both at home and abroad, there may now be a temptation to relax. For the road has been long, the burden heavy, and the pace consistently urgent. But we cannot be satisfied to rest here. This is the side of the hill, not the top. The mere absence of war is not peace. The mere absence of recession is not growth. We have made a beginning–but we have only begun.”

George H.W. Bush in 1992: “Much good can come from the prudent use of power. And much good can come of this: A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and preeminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”

As for whether 2015 will add another quote to this list, we’ll find out on Tuesday, when President Obama delivers the State of the Union.

TIME People

Virginia Governor Gives MLK Day Speech Fresh From Hospital With 7 Broken Ribs

Terry McAuliffe
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe gives his annual State of the Commonwealth address at the state capitol in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 14, 2015 Steve Helber—AP

There's no stopping him

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe suffered seven broken ribs after he was thrown from his horse over the Christmas holidays while on safari in Tanzania with his family.

McAuliffe was admitted to hospital in Virginia on Monday after doctors decided it was necessary to drain his chest cavity as fluid had built up around his lungs, the Stafford County Sun reports.

Regardless, the governor continued to work from his bed. And since his return from Africa, he had stuck to his regular work schedule, even managing to deliver an hour-long State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night despite his debilitating injuries.

Hours after he was discharged from hospital Monday, McAuliffe gave a speech to mark Martin Luther King Day in Norfolk, Va.

[Stafford County Sun]

TIME politics

How MLK Day Became a Holiday

Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his I Have a Dream speech in Washington DC in 1963 Francis Miller—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Legislation designating the national holiday was passed in 1983

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day is no long-standing tradition. The holiday is a little more than three decades old, and its establishment was no sure thing. Here’s how the occasion became as central to January in America as New Year’s resolutions.

Beginning almost immediately after King’s assassination, members of Congress proposed that his birthday ought to be a national holiday, but bills mandating the occasion went nowhere. The effort received more publicity when, after about a decade, shortly after the failure of a bill that was introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan in September of 1979, Stevie Wonder released a song called “Happy Birthday.” Despite its cheery title, it was specifically meant to make a case for the holiday, calling out anyone who didn’t support the idea:

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan came into office, and he was reluctant to support the idea.

As TIME reported in February of 1982, his administration early on had trouble with a “sensitivity gap” when it came to minorities and women. When his Chief of Staff James Baker proposed a committee to try to fix that, one of the questions TIME suggested they might consider was the matter of MLK Day. “Until now the White House has been noncommittal,” TIME’s Laurence I. Barrett wrote. “The reason says something about this Administration’s isolation from the nation’s largest minority. An official explains that the White House has appeared so indifferent to other pleas involving racial matters that embracing the national holiday idea would seem condescending.”

By the following summer, however, it was clear that some version of the holiday bill was sure to pass. (It had been reintroduced in July, by Rep. Katie Hall of Indiana.) “Faced with inevitable congressional passage of a bill to make Martin Luther King‘s birthday a national holiday, Reagan swallowed his longstanding objections that this would open the door to many other groups seeking similar holidays and decided that he would support the measure,” TIME’s Walter Isaacson wrote. Furthermore, the next election season was already beginning. Though the Reagan campaign didn’t hope to win among black voters in 1984, making a grand gesture out of Martin Luther King Jr. Day could appeal to more moderate white voters.

Sure enough, that fall, King was granted an honor that had, until that time, belonged only to George Washington. Congress passed a bill designating his birthday as a national holiday, to be celebrated on the third Monday in January, starting in 1986.

It wasn’t an easy accomplishment: right up until the bill passed, Senator Jesse Helms concentrated on the idea that King had sympathized with Communists as a reason not to create the holiday, and Reagan in a news conference said that there was nothing wrong with Helms’ “sincerity” when it came to the issue. Helms had threatened a filibuster, tried to open King’s sealed FBI files and estimated that the cost of a new national holiday would be $12 billion in lost productivity. Reagan’s middle-of-the-road stance was also confirmed by the publication of a letter in which he told New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson, who opposed the idea of a holiday, that he had reservations about King’s sympathy for Communists too, but that it didn’t matter because “here the perception of too many people is based on image, not reality.”

Nevertheless, Reagan signed the bill on Nov. 2, 1983. And, as two TIME readers wrote in a letter to the editor that ran in the Nov. 21, 1983, issue, the difficulty getting the holiday created wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: “As supporters of the King holiday bill, we thank Senator Jesse Helms for helping to secure the bill’s passage,” wrote Retta and Charles Gray of North Carolina. “Helms reminded us by his behavior of the freedoms the Rev. Dr. King fought for.”

Read the full account of the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here in the TIME Vault: A National Holiday for King

TIME politics

Sen. Rand Paul: Break Down the Wall That Separates Us From the ‘Other America’

Protesters stand during a demonstration against the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Foley Square in New York City on Dec. 4, 2014. Timothy A. Clary—AFP/Getty Images

Paul is the junior U.S. Senator for Kentucky.

We need to notice and be aware of the injustices embedded in our criminal justice system

In his 1967 address to Stanford University, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of two Americas. He described them as, “two starkly different American experiences that exist side by side.”

In one America, people experienced “the opportunity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all its dimensions.” In the other America, people experienced a “daily ugliness” that dashes hope and leaves only “the fatigue of despair.”

The uneasy coexistence of the two Americas is brought to bear by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Although I was born into the America that experiences and believes in opportunity, my trips to Ferguson, Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago have revealed that there is an undercurrent of unease.

Congressman John Lewis, who heroically marched in Selma, still sees two Americas. He writes: “One group of people in this country can expect the institutions of government to bend in their favor, no matter that they are supposedly regulated by impartial law.”

The other group: “[C]hildren, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers . . . are swept up like rubbish by the hard unforgiving hand of the law. They are offered no lenience, even for petty offenses, in a system that seems hell-bent on warehousing them by the millions . . . while others escape the consequences of pervasive malfeasance scot-free.”

We need to notice and be aware of the injustices embedded in our criminal system. However, we shouldn’t be misled to believe that excessive force is the norm, not the exception. I believe that most police are conscientious and want only to provide safety for us.

The blame should be directed to the laws and the politicians who order police into untenable positions, that insist on “taking down” someone for selling a couple of untaxed cigarettes.

Our pursuit of justice should not obscure the fact that on many occasions, good people do step forward to find justice.

This past fall, Helen Johnson was desperate to feed her two daughters and their small children who had gone two days without food. When she got to the store, she discovered that the $1.25 she had was not enough to buy eggs. She was a mere fifty cents short, so she stuffed the eggs in her pocket.

Helen didn’t even make it out of the store before the police were notified.

When Police Officer William Stacy arrived, something special happened. Instead of handcuffing Helen and taking her to jail, he used discretion and compassion to mete out justice. He warned Helen not to steal again and he bought her the eggs himself. Helen saw Officer Stacy again on Thanksgiving Day. He delivered a truckload of groceries to Helen’s home. Her grandchildren were overjoyed and proclaimed that they had never seen so much food in all their lives.

It isn’t hard to find injustice around us, but we must not let injustice smear the good deeds that do occur everyday.

I am optimistic, but peace will only come when those of us who have enjoyed the American Dream become more aware of those who are missing out on the Dream.

The future of our country will be secure when we break down the wall that separates us from “the other America.”

Let’s commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King by uniting the two Americas into one: an America that includes justice for one, and justice for all.

Paul is the junior U.S. Senator for Kentucky.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Ireland

Irish Minister for Health Announces He’s Gay

Irish Health minister Leo Varadkar, 36, who has publicly come out as gay, pictured here on Dec. 27, 2013.
Irish Health minister Leo Varadkar, 36, who has publicly come out as gay, pictured here on Dec. 27, 2013. Brian Lawless—Press Association/AP

The country is set to hold a referedum on marriage equality in May

Just months before Ireland is due to hold a referendum on marriage equality, the country’s minister for health has come out during a radio interview. Leo Varadkar told RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station, that he was gay and would be campaigning in support of same-sex marriage in the lead up to the referendum in May.

“It’s not a secret — but not something that everyone would necessarily know, but it isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before,” he said during the Jan. 18 interview. “I just kind of want to be honest with people. I don’t want anyone to think that I have a hidden agenda.”

He added: “I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country, the country in which I happen to be a member of Government, and at the moment I’m not.”

Ireland decriminalized homosexuality 22 years ago and same-sex couples have been able to enter a civil partnership since 2011, but not marry.


TIME fashion

44 First Lady Fashion Looks from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama

This weekend Michelle Obama turns another year older and another year more fashionable. See First Lady fashion from the 1930s to today

Michelle Obama probably has a long list of things she’d like to be remembered forlike her initiatives to combat childhood obesity and promote higher educationbefore she’s remembered for her sense of style. But with great responsibility comes great clothing, and the First Lady will certainly go down as the most fashionable woman in the White House since Jacqueline Kennedy.

Obama is known for choosing the patterned dress over the more subdued pantsuit, for baring her toned arms and—perish the thought—even wearing shorts. And there are some who argue that the choices she makes transcend personal expression and petty analysis and carry a certain amount of cultural significance.

“For some reason in this country there’s this false notion that style and substance have to occupy two separate worlds,” said fashion journalist Kate Betts in an interview with CNN, “and I think she’s proving that that’s wrong.”

According to Betts, author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, Obama’s style choices convey comfort (the occasional flats), confidence (feminine florals) and relatability (she shops at J. Crew). Her effortless looks, Betts wrote in the New York Times, make it “hard to imagine that there had ever been any dress code for her position.”

As these photos by LIFE photographers show, there hasn’t exactly been a dress code, though styles have historically erred on the conservative side (in terms of hem lines, not party lines). The first ladies’ fashions have both evolved with popular trends and helped to inspire them. Furs, seen on Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson, have fallen out of favor in recent decades. Hats, from Truman’s rather vertical design to Kennedy’s pillbox style, are infrequently sported by recent first ladies. Leather, with the exception of Nancy Reagan, shown in 1968 before her First Lady days, has been far from a staple, whereas the simple pearl necklace continues to be a timeless, nonpartisan classic.

While Kennedy’s style was described by LIFE in 1961 as having “an almost deliberate plainness,” Obama does not shy away from a hint of flourish here and there. But she’s certainly not the first to indulge in a bit of flair. When working with a designer on her dress for the inauguration in 1953, Mamie Eisenhower had a few extra requests. “She specified pink and asked for some additional glitter.” Because even the White Houseno, especially the White Housecan use a little sparkle now and then.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

TIME politics

The Increasingly Irrelevant Christian Primary

Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Held In D.C.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speaks during the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center March 7, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv.

Displays of religiosity have become increasingly public and de riguer in GOP politics, but the reality is that Americans are turning away from organized religion

Despite a long, slow decline in religious participation among Americans, do not expect Christian conservatives to light a candle rather than curse the darkness when it comes to politics. At least two likely contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, are calling for nothing short of a religious revival. “We have tried everything else,” Jindal recently told a group of Christian and Jewish leaders in Iowa, “and now it is time to turn back to God.”

Yeah, no, especially when it comes to politics. We really don’t need more moral instruction and biblical exhortation from elected leaders. Most indicators of social dysfunction—such as crime, sexual assault, and bullying—are declining. When it comes to politics, what we need is restrained spending, reduced and simplified regulation and taxation, and an embrace of social tolerance that allows diverse individuals to peacefully get on with their lives. If Republicans choose to nominate a candidate who talks as if voters are sinners in the hand of an angry God, they will alienate independents and even conservatives who are forming a large and growing “leave us alone coalition.”

As Americans turn away from religion, the hot-button issues that once divided voters are finding wide acceptance. Nearly 40% of Americans are “unchurched” and “essentially secular,” says religion researcher David Kinnaman, who oversaw a 2014 survey of more than 20,000 respondents. That’s only going to continue. Baby boomers are less devout than their parents, and Gen-Xers and Millennials are less observant still. “The younger the generation, the more post-Christian it is,” he told Religious News Service last October.

At the same time, gay marriage, pot legalization, and even abortion are becoming settled issues among voters. In 2004, just 42% of Americans favored recognizing gay marriage as equal to heterosexual unions. The figure today is 55%, according to Gallup. The trend is with regards to pot legalization, which a majority also supports. When it comes to abortion, about equal numbers of us describe ourselves at pro-choice and pro-life (each around 46%), but there has been no rise in support for banning the practice since it was legalized in the 1970s.

While there’s no reason to think that voters are clamoring for more religion in politics, Mike Huckabee will make exactly such a move the cornerstone of his candidacy if he chooses to run for president. The former governor has taken a leave of absence from his gig as a Fox News host while he ponders his options and promotes his new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. He continues to view gay marriage as an abomination and just last fall threatened to leave the Republican Party if it did not “grow a spine” and defend the traditional definition of marriage.

That might sell a lot of books and draw an intense and loyal following on Fox News, but it has nothing to do with most people’s top political concerns. By vast majorities, Americans mostly care about things such as the economy, job creation, health care, and government spending. Those are the concerns that must be front and center for any successful candidate and party.

Which isn’t to say that politicians can’t be religious while advancing the limited government agenda that most Americans support. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is a bible-believing Christian who attended Baylor University, a Baptist institution. Yet the reason Paul is among the top-tier Republican hopefuls after just a few years in office isn’t because he can quote the Bible chapter and verse. It’s because he has foregrounded his libertarian bona fides by questioning the federal government’s spying on innocent citizens, refusal to rein in spending, willingness to intervene militarily all over the world, and continued enthusiasm for a failed war on drugs. People want less government and less intrusion on their day to day lives, not government bureaucrats weighing their children at public school and lecturing them about diet, as Mike Huckabee supports.

Similarly, the reason why Bobby Jindal, a Roman Catholic, is popular in Louisiana isn’t because he says he once performed an exorcism while an undergraduate. It’s because he has governed pragmatically and effectively, especially on issues such as school choice. As the libertarian Cato Institute notes in its latest report card on governors, “Jindal has been tight-fisted on spending,” the number of state employees is down 18% since he took office, and he opposes expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

It is a bizarre paradox that displays of religiosity have become increasingly public and de riguer in GOP politics as Americans turn away from organized religion. Republicans won big in the midterms not because they are the party of God but because President Obama and the Democrats overreached, overspent, and overregulated over the past few years. Republicans can win the White House in 2016, but only if they put forth a powerful agenda to address worldly problems while leaving religion where it belongs: in houses of worship.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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