Religious rhetoric in American political history

Let us resolve tonight that young Americans will always see those Potomac lights; that they will always find there a city of hope in a country that is free. And let us resolve they will say of our day and of our generation that we did keep faith with our God, that we did act “worthy of ourselves;” that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.

—President Ronald Reagan, 1980

Religious political rhetoric can overwhelm citizens with an array of different emotions, leading individuals to identify with a broad and varied range of groups and interests. We know very little, however, about exactly which group identities and emotions religious rhetoric is bringing to the surface. Although it seems likely that many voters will have some sort of emotional response to a passage such as the Reagan statement quoted here, it is unclear precisely what kind of affective punch this statement will have on a religiously diverse public. Moreover, it is unclear exactly which religious identity Reagan is calling forth as a standard of political evaluation. Phrases such as “our God” implies an appeal to a religious group; however, the boundaries of this group are not easily identifiable. Thus, although there are strong theoretical (and intuitive) reasons to suspect that Reagan’s city on a hill speech mattered politically, there is little research documenting how religious communication translates into political opinion.

Part of the reason this connection is so elusive is that religious identity is so complex. If candidates were only making simple appeals to denominational subgroups, connecting candidate rhetoric to voter attitudes would be a straightforward task. But there is nothing straightforward about religious appeals in American politics. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to make sense of the substance and the tenor of an appeal such as Reagan’s without first understanding how nuanced rhetorical constructions have evolved in American political discourse to become powerful markers of belonging in the political community.

To understand the effects of religious rhetoric, we first need to examine the question: How is the religious appeal crafted in the first place? Most scholars addressing this question have adopted a historical lens, examining the nuanced use of religious appeals throughout American political history. This approach makes sense. Religious rhetoric in contemporary campaigns does not occur in a vacuum but is, instead, the product of historical forces and discursive norms. Carefully examining this body of research is an important first step in understanding the effects of religious rhetoric in contemporary politics. In providing a descriptive account of the emotive and identity-laden elements of religious rhetoric, we learn exactly to whom religious appeals are directed, as well as the tone and tenor with which successful appeals are made.

The scope of this undertaking is vast; however, two distinct consistencies emerge across American political history. First, American religious political rhetoric almost always tends to construct religious identities as a superordinate concept—blurring the boundaries of sects and subgroups to assert a politics of religious commonality. Of particular interest is the rhetorical construction of an American civil religion identity, stressing a transcendent religious ethos that unites Americans. Second, religious rhetoric has a distinctly emotive tone, blending a lament about American sin with a sense of optimism about the future. In analyzing the character of these identity-laden and emotive elements, this chapter provides a framework for assessing religious language in contemporary campaigns.

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