When things get tough, politicians look to the 'amen corner'

Campaigns occasionally get compared to religious movements, so it’s not surprising to see the term 'amen corner' in greater use. 

Nati Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida talks to supporters after speaking at the Iowa GOP's Growth and Opportunity Party at the Iowa state fair grounds in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 31, 2015. The New York Times recently said that Senator Rubio can count on an 'amen corner' in the conservative press.

“Amen corner.” In a church, the section of a congregation hosting the most vocally devout worshipers; in politics, the most fervent supporters of a candidate or issue.

Because campaigns occasionally get compared to religious movements, it’s not surprising to see this term in greater use. The late language expert William Safire said the phrase predates the Civil War and first surfaced in the Congressional Record in 1884. “Trouble in the Amen Corner,” based on a poem, became a popular country gospel song in the 1960s. (Among those who recorded it: Wink Martindale, who later became a TV game-show host.)

Discussing right-wing pundits’ fondness for Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin said Sunday on CNN: “Marco has a great advantage in this campaign – he has got an amen corner in the conservative press. It is so revealing when he’s under attack from the left, or from folks inside the primary, the people that rally to his side.”

The Seattle P-I’s Joel Connelly in September noted the GOP field’s enthusiastic response to Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples: “Davis has found an ‘Amen Corner’ among Republican presidential candidates.” And The Nation’s John Nichols has used it to dismiss pro-free trade news media outlets as well as new House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) and other deficit-cutters resisting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s plans to increase government spending on education and other services.

Former GOP presidential candidate and international isolationist Patrick Buchanan popularized the expression in a controversial 1990 blast at plans for Operation Desert Storm. “There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East – the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States,” Buchanan said.

Since then, it has come up again in the context of Israel. When that country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to Congress earlier this year in forcefully arguing against a nuclear deal with Iran, Bloomberg Politics ran a piece headlined: “At Netanyahu’s Speech, Scenes From the Amen Corner.”  More recently, longtime GOP national-security hawk Elliott Abrams, writing in the Weekly Standard, referenced Buchanan’s comment in accusing President Obama of being unwilling to stand strongly with Israel.

The popularity of “amen corner” extends to other areas. It’s best known in golf as the 11th , 12th and 13th holes at Augusta National, the site of the Masters, which are seen as so challenging that they require prayerful meditation. And it was the name of a 1960s British psychedelic-rock band.

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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