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Home arrow Religion arrow Religious Rhetoric and American Politics: The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns
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Overview of the Chapters

In this book, I establish a number of conclusions about the impact of religious rhetoric on American politics, ranging from broad historical judgments about the place of civil religion in American culture to narrowly tailored arguments about the psychology of religiosity and vote choice. The key premise is that these macro and micro approaches are mutually reinforcing. It is impossible to understand the success of religious appeals across history without thinking critically about the psychological processes that undergirded the persuasive efforts of historical figures, and it is impossible to understand present-day patterns of religious voting without placing the campaign rhetoric in its proper historic context.

Accordingly, the evidence presented in this book unfolds at several levels of analysis, moving from a historical examination of religious rhetoric, to a content analysis of religious rhetoric in contemporary campaigns, and finally to an examination of individuals’ voting behavior using surveys and experiments. Although the scope of the book changes, the evidence consistently indicates that religious rhetoric is effective primarily because of its ability to induce a sense of shared identity and emotions in message recipients. In chapters 2 to 4, I focus on identity-laden and emotive cues in rhetoric, addressing exactly how public figures craft religious expression and what this rhetorical nuance says about American political culture. In chapters 5 and 6, I shift the scope of the argument from identity cues in rhetoric to religious identity as experienced by individuals and from emotive language to emotions in the mass public. Ultimately, the argument is consistent across levels of analysis. Emotion and identity are both important components of the terms and tenor of political debate, and they are important parts of how individuals understand the political world.

Chapter 2 begins by addressing emotion and identity from a historical vantage, examining the use of religious rhetoric in American politics from early Puritan political communities through the twentieth century. By examining the evolution of religious rhetoric over time, I provide insight into how religious rhetoric is constitutive of American political culture and how it is used politically across contexts. My principal argument here is that emotion and identity have been central elements in religious rhetoric throughout American history (although how they have been invoked has evolved over time). They are neither fleeting elements nor elements emerging only in contemporary politics, and they have consistently played a prominent role in shaping American political discourse. This finding has important consequences for the book as a whole, suggesting that, even amid substantial contextual variation, identity and emotion provide considerable insight into American political culture and political preference formation. Religious rhetoric is not joined at the hip to any one political issue or ideological outlook. It is a flexible genre that has been appropriated to fit numerous political causes.

Chapter 3 builds on this historical analysis by exploring the invocation of religious identities in modern campaigns. In this chapter, I present evidence that religious rhetoric is rarely concerned with taking stances on issues or rationalizing a complex policy agenda. Rather, religious rhetoric is principally in the business of building a sense of shared identity between citizens and candidates. Three types of identity references are common: subgroup references to specific denominations and faith traditions; civil religion appeals, aimed at engendering a spiritualized sense of national identity; and culture wars identities, which seek to make cultural fault lines salient. These identities have important consequences for how the boundaries of the American political community are characterized. A content analysis of over 1,300 speeches by Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls from 1980 to 2008 indicates that candidates make frequent reference to a nondenominational spiritual identity that permeates the American experience. As we will see, the language of civil religion identity is far more common than the language of culture wars, indicating that American religious identity—at least in the realm of political discourse—is more a source of unity than a source of division. But even though these civil religion appeals typically downplay religious pluralism in the interest of emphasizing what faiths and peoples have in common, they also often marginalize and alienate key segments of the American electorate. Ultimately, then, the rhetoric of religious identity— although central to understanding American politics—neither sows the seeds of a large-scale cultural battle nor constitutes a panacea for social cohesion.

In addition to identity, emotion is a key element of American religious political rhetoric. Chapter 4 begins by developing a strategy for identifying emotive elements in speeches. Using the same rhetoric database as in chapter 3, I conclude that candidates adopt specific emotive frames to make identity-based appeals. Religious rhetoric tends to be exceptionally optimistic—far more positive and hopeful than secular campaign speech. I also present evidence that is generally inconsistent with claims that there is a growing divisiveness in religious rhetoric; there is little evidence to suggest that presidential campaign religious rhetoric is being used as a tool to leverage large-scale cultural rifts. I do find, however, that there are significant partisan dimensions in the emotive characteristics of religious rhetoric, a conclusion that follows from the nature of existing religious divisions in the electorate.

Chapter 5 argues that religious rhetoric is one significant cause of the relationship between religion and politics in the mass public and that this process can be understood by examining both the specific qualities of religious messages and how varied message types interact with different religious predispositions. I use statistical tools to merge the religious rhetoric variables from chapters 3 and 4 with survey data collected in presidential elections from 1980 to 2004. The results indicate that how candidates craft the identity and emotive elements of religious rhetoric influences how they are viewed by the electorate. Specifically, different rhetorical nuances tend to activate different dimensions of individuals’ religious orientations. For example, when a candidate speaks in the language of American civil religion, the religiously committed become more favorably predisposed toward that candidate, but the religiously orthodox actually tend to lower their opinion of the candidate. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that identity priming and emotion are a basis for political persuasion and provide strong evidence that candidates’ religious rhetoric is, in part, responsible for the relationship between voters’ religious and political attitudes.

Chapter 6 uses experiments to add a layer of confirmatory evidence to the findings from chapter 5, and using the concept of civil religion identity, it extends the conclusions drawn in chapter 5 to provide a deeper understanding of political representation. Civil religion identity has broad adherence in the American public, and political rhetoric often primes civil religion identity as a basis of candidate evaluation. Voters who strongly identify with the American civil religion are attracted to candidates who invoke this genre and see them as prototypical group leaders who share their moral outlook (although not necessarily their substantive policy outlook). The representational consequences of this identity, however, are crosscutting. Although theoretically civil religion identity is nondenominational, in practice its membership is essentially limited to Christians. Non-Christians find themselves unrepresented by candidates who embrace the tenets of American civil religion. The consequences of civil religion rhetoric are thus mixed—although it provides a form of meaningful leadership for many Americans, it leaves others feeling excluded from the political system.

Using corroborating evidence from multiple methodological approaches, I conclude that religious rhetoric is a central force responsible shaping the contours of American political culture. Religious rhetoric is also electorally consequential and culturally significant, with important implications for how we interpret American political representation. Even though its use has changed over time, it has been remarkably consistent in its ability to stir the emotions of the mass public and to engender a sense of shared spiritualized identity.

 
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