Psychological, Religious, and Political Factors in American Elections

As figure 1.1 illustrates, candidates making their case before the American public must deal with multiple crosscutting pressures, the first of which is political. Most U.S. races are winner-take-all, meaning that to hold office a candidate must win a plurality of the votes (or a majority of electoral votes at the presidential level). Unlike many other electoral systems, seats are not allocated for second place. Accordingly, candidate rhetoric must appeal to an audience that holds a diverse array of religious beliefs. The United States is unique among world democracies in this regard, having both high levels of religious adherence and no single dominant sect (Greeley 1972; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2007; Putnam and Campbell 2010). Thus, candidates cannot afford to ignore religion, nor can they afford to privilege a particular faith tradition.

These political and religious pressures have an interesting point of intersection with what is known about the psychological basis of political persuasion. As previously noted, political psychologists have identified two factors—identity and emotion—that play a central role in how voters think about political candidates. While many factors can awaken emotions and identities in the public, religious appeals are particularly well suited to this task and are at the same time capable of effectively satisfying the competing political and religious pressures incumbent on candidates.

By identity, I refer here to “social identities,” or individuals’ awareness of objective group membership and the sense of attachment they get from belonging (Tajfel 1981; Conover 1984, 1988). Although “being religious” need not imply social identity as a matter of definition, scholars have recognized that religion does play important identity-relevant functions (Emmons and Paloutzian 2003).5 Social identities have been found to have numerous political implications, the most consequential and widely replicated being ingroup favoritism, even when group attachment is fairly minimal (Huddy 2001). That is to say, even when group boundaries are arbitrarily assigned, individuals still tend to demonstrate a persistent bias toward their own group. And, because religious group attachment is far from arbitrary, religious social identities should engender substantial favoritism toward those with whom the individual shares group membership.

Candidates commonly use political rhetoric to prime identities. Priming refers to “provok[ing] opinion or behavior change not because in?dividuals alter their beliefs or evaluations of objects, but because they alter the relative weight they give to various considerations that make up the ultimate evaluation” (Mendelsohn 1996, 113). In any given election, voters have numerous competing considerations, from issues to images to social group memberships (Valentino 1999; Druckman and Holmes 2004; Druckman, Jacobs, and Ostermeier 2004; Jackson 2005). By rhetorically emphasizing social identities (or any number of other considerations), candidates make these group attachments a salient basis of political evaluation. In this way, expressions of religious identity can create deep feelings of group favoritism between candidates and the public.

Of course, candidates can make direct appeals to denominational subgroups (such as Catholics and Baptists) even though, with no single dominant religious denomination in the United States, subgroup appeals have a somewhat limited audience. What is more likely is that religious identity priming operates by engendering a sense of civil religion identity. The concept of American civil religion asserts that a broad religious identity unites virtually the entire nation. In this way, civil religion appeals should theoretically serve as a solution to the challenge of appealing to a religious constituency that is both committed and diverse. With the possible exception of appeals to national identity, no other group-based appeal (e.g., to race, gender, or class) has the potential to codify political support around such a broad (yet salient) group. Thus, when Bush said (see quotation at the outset of this chapter) that “God is near. In a single instant, we realized that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that we’ve been called to a unique role in human events,” he was asserting a leadership role in an overarching spiritual community.

Scholars emphasize different points regarding precisely how public expressions of civil religion should be characterized and where it gains its cultural and political significance. For example, Martin Marty (1987) identifies both “priestly” civil religion, which is primarily concerned with legitimizing state practices, and “prophetic” civil religion, which seeks to guide the nation to meet certain ethical benchmarks (see also Wald and Calhoun- Brown 2006). Whereas Marty ascribes an ongoing sociological significance to both forms of civil religion in American politics, others have suggested that the cultural force of civil religion has declined since a peak in the 1950s (Ahlstrom 1972; Marty 1987). Other scholarly debates revolve around whether civil religion sits in tension or in harmony with religious pluralism. Some argue that civil religion can unite common elements of different religious traditions; others contend that it carries with it an implicitly sectarian impulse (Lambert 2008, 26-27; see also Mead 1974). Taking up this latter point, Herbert Richardson concludes that, in the end, “civil religion always tends to generate the very situation it seeks to prevent” (1974, 165).

I address these debates in this book. The theory of identity priming, however, suggests a somewhat different starting point for grappling with language of civil religion and its consequences for American politics and culture. Specifically, understanding religious identity priming requires that we draw a clear connection between rhetoric in the public square and its influence on the attitudes and opinions of the electorate. What considerations are primed by these nondenominational appeals? Moreover, how do these appeals shape political behavior and political life? Civil religion appeals are quite common in political rhetoric, and evidence suggests that they should have broad appeal to religiously diverse constituencies. Indeed, the perseverance of the genre throughout American political history is a testament to the degree to which it has mass appeal (Bellah 1967). If civil religion references tended to fall flat, it is unlikely that candidates would still be making references to America as a “City on a Hill” and asserting a shared spiritual bond (Wimberley 1980). It should be noted that just because the genre does not appeal to a readily definable group (such as Methodists) does not mean that it cannot activate group identity. Michael Billig (2003) argues that adept rhetoricians often attempt to foster a sense of shared identity with the members of their target audience by linking them with cherished national values. Even the “banal use of political cliches” and strategic deployment of pronouns like “we” can cement ingroup allegiances and commitments to group values (Billig 2003, 238). Because these values (in the American case) are often religious or quasi-religious, it makes sense that civil religion appeals are amenable to the activation of group identity. Empirical evidence has documented the political significance of these broad identity appeals (Gaertner and Dovi- dio 2000). John Transue (2007), for example, has found that national identity can supersede the effects of subgroup attachment. In short, public figures’ use of language that yokes together religion and country has a dramatic impact on the “self-image” of the public and ultimately “what it means to be an American” (Domke and Coe 2010).

In stark contrast, culture wars appeals drive a wedge into the American public, asserting that there are exactly two religious groups in American politics and that they are locked in an intractable political conflict over the moral standing of the nation.6 The potential target membership of culture wars appeals is smaller than civil religion appeals, making it unlikely that this rhetorical style will be deployed with the same regularity as civil religion rhetoric, despite fears by many scholars that a culture war is on the rise (Hunter 1991). Nevertheless, the stakes are always high in culture wars rhetoric, suggesting that, although they might not mobilize support in a pluralistic state as effectively as civil religion rhetoric, self-identification with orthodox or progressive camps will still be deeply felt and politically salient.

Culture wars and civil religion appeals thus implicate different understandings of religious identity. Each also carries a specific emotional tenor, ranging from enthusiasm to anxiety to anger. Understanding the tenor of religious rhetoric is important because emotions are known to have significant consequences on political judgment (Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000) and because political messages are, at least in part, responsible for bringing about these emotions in message recipients (Brader 2006).

Emotions work in two principle ways. They can work directly, by transferring the emotive content of a stimulus onto a message recipient. Simply put, if a candidate puts you in a positive mood, you will like her more, and the opposite is also true (Ladd and Lenz 2008). Emotions can also work indirectly by altering the decision-making process (Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000; see also Schwarz, Bless, and Bohner 1991). Psychologists argue that emotions play an evolutionarily adaptive role, and accordingly, different discrete affective states have arisen to meet specific situational demands (Bodenhausen, Sheppard, and Kramer 1994; Nabi 1999; Lerner and Keltner 2000; Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000; DeSteno, Petty, et al. 2004; Brader, 2006). For example, enthusiasm cues tend to be consistent with heuristic processing or with reliance on stable preexisting political affiliations (Brader 2006). Negative emotions often do the opposite. Norbert Schwarz concludes that, “In a nutshell, we usually feel bad when things go wrong and feel good when we face no particular problems. Hence, negative affective states may signal that the current situation is problematic and may hence elicit a processing style that pays close attention to the specifics of the apparently problematic situation” (2000, 434). Not all negative moods lead to systematic processing, however. For example, Galen Bodenhausen, Lori Sheppard, and Geoffrey Kramer (1994) find evidence that, whereas sad individuals tend to engage in effortful processing as a means to alleviate the sad situation, angry individuals tend to engage in heuristic processing due to reduced cognitive capacity and reduced motivation for thoughtful analysis.

Likewise, David DeSteno, Nilanjana Dasgupta, and colleagues find that “anger, because of its basic association with intergroup competition and conflict, evok[es] a psychological readiness to evaluate outgroups negatively vis-a-vis ingroups, thus creating an automatic prejudice against the outgroup from thin air” (2004, 323).

Anxiety has also been theorized as a distinct emotional state associated with a distinct processing style.7 Ted Brader argues that “fear ads” used in political campaigns elicit anxiety in individuals, causing them to “place less weight on prior convictions and more weight on contemporary evaluations” (2006, 182), a conclusion that is consistent with the Affective Intelligence model of George Marcus, W. Russell Neuman, and Michael MacKuen (2000). For example, enthusiastic individuals tend to rely on heuristic judgments in their reasoning about candidates, whereas anxious individuals tend to engage in a deeper, more effortful information search (Brader 2006). In short, by making voters anxious, angry, enthusiastic, sad, or calm, candidates may be activating a number of psychological processes that are important to how voters think about candidates.

More important, the civil religion and culture wars genres are each closely identified with a highly emotive communication style. Culture wars rhetoric, for example, regularly uses anxiety and fear to characterize competing worldviews. The civil religion tradition, in contrast, is characterized by its hopefulness and optimism about the future of America, as well as a lament about U.S. moral shortcomings (Murphy 2009). Thus, given this close association between the dominant forms of religious political communication and emotion, on the one hand, and the importance of emotion in political persuasion, on the other, it is important to investigate how religious rhetoric influences the public mood of the electorate (Rahn, Kroeger, and Kite 1996).

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