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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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Rhetoric and Identity

From the early Puritan communities forward, religious identity was a concept closely intertwined with the fate of the entire political community. Puritans employed biblical concepts such as a covenant with God to construct an intense political identity lodged in a sense of a shared fate. The idea of a covenant with God was the Puritans’ raison d’etre, and upholding their end of the agreement necessarily implicated political cohesiveness. Colonial political rhetoric thus asserted a highly robust form of spiritualized collective identity, positing the existence of both a collective mission and a collective fate.

The most well-known example of this is probably the Mayflower Compact, undertaken by Pilgrim settlers in 1620. In this document, the signers agreed that “Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid” (Mayflower Compact 1620). The Mayflower Compact brings a sanctified sense of collective identity to the forefront. It was not enough to simply reform the individual soul—if this were the case, the flight from England would not have been necessary. England as a nation had failed to uphold its end of the agreement (Morgan 1958, 18-21, 69-70), and so the Puritans undertook the formation of a new political body—subsuming the individual in the collective covenant (Morgan 1965, xxii). As Jerald Brauer summarizes, “Though the relationship between God and the soul is highly individual and subjective, it occurs only in the context of a community, the church” (1976, 8). The Puritan errand was, thus, nothing if not undertaken with a shared communal vision.

As this example suggests, from very early on American political identity was rhetorically conjoined with a special place in God’s divine plan. Puritans regularly drew on the example of Israel, according the New Englanders an “elect” status before God.1 On this point, Sacvan Bercovitch (1978) cites Richard Mather, the influential Puritan minister, extolling the special status of the American colonists: “For as some passages in this Scripture were never fully accomplished, so many things that literally concerned the Jewes were types and figures, signifying the like things concerning the people of God in these latter days. And this place seemes not onely to be meant of personall coversion, but also further, of the open and joint calling of a company, so noting the joyning of a company together in holy Covenant with God” (quoted in Bercovitch 1978, 45-46). Mather is suggesting that, despite the lack of direct mention of America in the Bible, the experience of Israel nevertheless signifies the elect status of the colonies. This applies to the collective and not just “personal conversion,” a rhetorical move that Bercovitch calls an “implicit yoking together of social identity and the claim to election” (1978, 46).

The notion that the colonists were God’s chosen people—with God’s covenant with Israel as a model—is prevalent throughout early Puritan political rhetoric. For example, in a 1690 Massachusetts election sermon, Richard Mather’s grandson Cotton Mather preached that “you may see Israel in America, by looking upon this Plantation; may peace be upon this Israel of God! It is notorious, That a settlement in this part of America, was first endeavored by some that had no designs but those of a Secular interest: but the God of Heaven blasted all those designs, and broke up one Plantation after another by very terrible frowns of His Holy Providence” (1690, 241). As was Richard Mather in the earlier passage, Cotton Mather is engaged in building a sense of shared social identity both by identifying an opposition (“secular interests”) and suggesting that the intervention of God had played a role in the creation of a people.

Covenant theology also lent itself to the rhetorical construction of a common identity by creating a sense of shared fate, in that breaking a covenant with God would have severe consequences for the entire community. John Winthrop’s “Christian Charitie: A Modell Hereof” is one well-known example. Winthrop characterizes the community as a body, whereby the constituent parts are bound together in Christian love. To break this body apart, Winthrop explains, would mean a breach of covenant and ultimately the ruin of the community: “The Lord will surely breake out in wrathe against us be revenged such a perjured people and make us knowe the price of the breache of such a Covenant. Now the only way to avoid this shipwracke and to provide for our posterity is to follow the Counsell of Micah,2 to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God, for this end, wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertain each other in brotherly Affeccion” (1630, 92). Winthrop’s appeal to brotherhood is not merely a polite request. Breaking the covenant would mean facing God’s wrath, as Micah (6:9-16) foretold, and the colonists could not uphold the covenant without being knit together as one. Thus, a common identity as a people was absolutely necessary to avoid complete ruin and to stand, as Winthrop concludes, “as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people . . . upon us” (1630, 93).

Although the concept of covenant remained an important part of religious rhetoric into the American Revolution, over time the “we” in this identity broadened considerably, moving from the strict boundaries of the Massachusetts Puritan “elect” to an inclusive pan-colonial identity. Scholars often attribute this rhetorical shift to the Great Awakening— specifically citing the preaching of Jonathan Edwards (Brauer 1976; Ber- covitch 1978). In Edwards’ formulation, America was at the center of the unfolding of God’s plan and enjoyed a special status in God’s eyes (Brauer 1976, 21).3 For Edwards, the key to this formulation centered on a postmillennial eschatology. Earlier Puritans had typically been premillennial in their outlook; that is, they believed a long period of tribulation would precede Christ’s Second Coming. Edwards’ postmil- lennialism offered a more optimistic outlook, interpreting scripture to indicate that Christ would return after a period of Christian rule and dominance on earth (Brauer 1976, 22). America, in Edwards’ view, was the realization of this period of Christian glory.4 The rhetorical construction of a distinctly American identity is thus inseparable from religious developments of the time, whereby a nondenominational sense of common religious purpose served to bridge other colonial differences.5 In Eugene White’s words, “as the first mass movement which tended to draw the colonies together in a common bond, the Awakening offered a new emotional identification, a democratic unification, and an inclination toward intercolonial unity transcending sectionalism and denomi- nationalism” (1972, 58).6

Following the American Revolution, religious political rhetoric continued to articulate this vision of an American religious identity that self-consciously transcended sectarian divisions. Moreover, the evolving genre began to characterize even ostensibly secular national symbols in religious terms. As Berkovitch writes:

Washington . . . enshrined as savior, his mighty deeds expounded, his apostles ranked, the Judas in their midst identified, the Declaration of Independence adequately compared to the Sermon on the Mount, the sacred places and objects (Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, the Liberty Bell) properly labeled, the Constitution duly ordained (in Emerson’s words) as “the best book in the world” next to the New Testament, and the Revolution, summarily, “indissolubly linked” (as John Quincy Adams put it) with “the birthday . . . of the Savior,” as being the social, moral, and political correlative of “the Redeemer’s mission on earth” and thus “the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfillment of the prophesies, announced directly from Heaven.” (1978, 129)

Examples of these rhetorical developments abounded during the ratification debate. For example, Elizur Goodrich’s “The Principles of Civil Union and Happiness,” preached just days before the Constitutional

Convention convened, drew parallels between the American states and the tribes of Israel (1787, 929), comparing the blessings of America to Jerusalem (913). Goodrich explicitly stresses the commonalities between denominations: “What is more necessary, than union among the ministers of CHRIST?” (1787, 935).7 Goodrich also consecrates the founding of the nation, arguing that the Revolutionary War was won through the “interposition of a wonder-working Providence” (1787, 938).8

During the ratification debate, this rhetorical style was imported from sermons to popular editorializing and speechifying.9 Consider the case of an anonymous editorial (actually authored by Benjamin Franklin) published in the Federal Gazette in April 1788. The editorial is essentially an ad hominum, comparing Antifederalists to the Israelites who had rebelled against Moses. The majority of Franklin’s editorial consists of an emotive retelling of Numbers, contending that discontented members of the “thirteen tribes” had rejected the Constitution implemented by Moses. This retelling is a thinly veiled attack on the Antifederalists, overdrawing parallels between Constitutional ratification and biblical events.10 Franklin concludes by arguing, “I beg I may not be understood to infer, that our General Convention was divinely inspired, when form’d the new federal Constitution . . . yet I must own I have so much Faith in the general Government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a Transaction of such momentous Importance to the Welfare of Millions, and to exist in the Posterity of a great Nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influence’d, guided, and governed by that omnipresent, omniscient, and beneficent Ruler” (1788, 404-5). This is an argument by paralipsis. In begging the audience not to infer divine intervention, Franklin is drawing precisely that conclusion. Given the parallels between the Israelites in Numbers and the religious identity of the American people, to reject the Constitution would amount to disobedience to God.

As Berkovitch argues, the case for ratifying the Constitution gained its strength by constructing American religious identity and fate in religious terms—contrasting “apocalyptic disaster,” on the one hand, with the promise of the Constitution—“millennial glory”—on the other (1978, 136). According to Bercovitch, the Federalist jeremiad “gave the nation a past and future in sacred history, rendered its political and legal outlook a fulfillment of prophesy, elevated its ‘true inhabitants,’ the enterprising European Protestants who had immigrated within the past century or so, to the status of God’s chosen, and declared the vast territories around them to be their chosen country” (1978, 140). For God’s chosen people, crisis could be overcome through divine intervention. Just as God favored the American cause in the Revolutionary War, so too was the Constitution of divine design.

This is even the case in the Federalist Papers, which on the balance avoided explicitly religious justifications for the Constitution.11 For example, in Federalist 37 James Madison writes, “The real wonder is, that so many difficulties [in framing the constitution] should have been surmounted; and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. . . . It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it, a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution” (1788a, 179). Madison’s rhetorical move here is consequential. He uses inclusive language (“our relief”) and national history (the Revolution) to invoke a sense of spiritual cohesion and common national identity. The framing of the Constitution is, then, built into this sacred history. To resist the Constitution would be to resist God’s intentions. Madison’s use of religious language thus folds a spiritualized sense of national identity and divine intervention in national affairs into the crafting of the Constitution, a document that would itself, in time, be raised up to near-biblical significance.

As these examples illustrate, American political rhetoric has been saturated with claims of collective religious identity that in time would be termed an American civil religion (Bellah 1967). This religious identity is almost always multidenominational and aims to infuse the founding of America with collective religious purpose, and no single candidate, party, or interest group has had a monopoly on the rhetorical use of collective religious identity to build movement solidarity and assert a sense of divine purpose.

And nowhere is the rhetorical contestation over the rightful inheritance of the American collective religious identity more evident than during the Civil War.12 Both North and South made claims to divine providence, and both sought to sanctify national symbols to build common identity. In the South, American identity was reconstituted to make the Confederate secession consistent with biblical necessity, with writings routinely equating the Southern cause with God’s divine blessing. For example, James Henley Thornwell, the well-known Presbyterian minister and author, characterized secession as the necessary consequence of the Northern rebuke of God’s wishes:

They have put their Constitution under their feet; they have annulled its most sacred provisions. . . . On the other hand, we are struggling for constitutional freedom. We are upholding the great principles which our fathers bequeathed us, and if we should succeed, and become, as we shall, the dominant nation of this continent, we shall perpetuate and diffuse the very liberty for which Washington bled, and which the heroes of the Revolution achieved. . . . We shall have a Government that acknowledges God, that reverences right, and that makes law supreme. We are, therefore, fighting not for ourselves alone, but, when the struggle is rightly understood, for the salvation of this whole continent. (1862)

This is not an outright rejection of the Constitution as a “higher” document. Rather, Thornwell is rejecting what the Constitution had become and claiming the sacred character of American identity as the property of the Confederacy. Moreover, Thornwell’s claim that the Confederacy acknowledged God was not, in the mind of Southerners, empty rhetoric. Unlike the preamble to the federal Constitution, the preamble to the Confederate Constitution stated as its purpose to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God,” a move aimed at claiming providential blessing on the Confederacy and infusing the new Constitution with an element of the sacred.

Assertions of shared spiritual identity—coupled with labeling the North as an outgroup—were common in secessionist rhetoric. For example, the 1863 Address of the Virginia Baptist Association was both a lamentation for the sins of the South and a claim on its holding a privileged religious position: “Though God in scourging us has used the hand of a wicked nation as His avenging instrument, we are daily more convinced of the righteousness of our cause, and have abiding faith, through His favor, of ultimate, and we trust not distant deliverance from our ruthless enemy.” Even though Southerners were being punished for transgressions—transgressions that did not include slavery—they nevertheless remained the chosen people of God. The Virginia Baptist Association address takes pains both to divorce the North from its spiritual Puritan ancestry and to declare the righteousness of the Southern cause. As Harry Stout and Christopher Grasso summarize, “With secession . . . previously patriotic [Southern] American men of God put aside their past and reinvented themselves as divine spokesmen for a new Christian nation” (1998, 318).

Northern abolitionist and unionist rhetoric also asserted a spiritualized national identity, although to very different ends. Daniel Webster’s Plymouth Rock address (1820) serves as one illustrative example. The purpose of the speech was to commemorate the Pilgrim’s settlement in North America. The site is described as the place “where Christianity, and civilization, and letters made their first lodgement” and the “Pilgrim Fathers” are venerated as national heroes for their commitment to piety and liberty. Webster uses the occasion to denounce the slave trade, characterizing it as a national sin, out of step with the American spiritual charter: “It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame longer” (1820). Webster concludes on a note of hope, arguing that on the day slavery ends, “the voice of acclamation and gratitude, commencing on the Rock of Plymouth, shall be transmitted through millions of the sons of the Pilgrims, till it lose itself in the murmurs of the Pacific seas” (1820). In this densely packed sentence, Webster epitomizes every aspect of the American religious identity, building a sense of common identity through the consecration of a national symbol, the creation of a sense of shared ancestry, and a shared manifest destiny in the westward expansion. This is a promise to be fulfilled once America pleases God by casting off its sinful nature. Craig Smith’s interpretation of Webster concurs with this assessment, arguing that Webster’s rhetoric was successful in part because of his ability to create a “psychological identification between the speaker and the audience” to advance the cause of the Union, aiding in the “development of a civil religion [that] resonated with the evangelism of the times” (2005, 2).

Northern rhetoric regularly infused American founding documents with religious purpose to advocate for Union (and abolitionism). For example, in discerning the proper scope of constitutional authority to regulate slavery, William H. Seward argued on the Senate floor that a “higher law” directed and guided the Constitution (1850). In this speech, Seward invokes religious language in a plea to uphold the Union, “for then it will be seen how calmly, how firmly, how nobly, a great people can act in preserving their Constitution; whom ‘love of country moveth, example teacheth, company comforteth, emulation quickeneth, and glory exalteth’” (1850). Lincoln similarly sanctified the Declaration of Independence. In a speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln held up the Declaration of Independence as “our ancient faith” (1854, 32) and urged Americans to “re-adopt” the Declaration as a necessary precondition for moral righteousness—to both save the Union and make it “worthy of saving” (1854, 34). Lincoln’s rhetoric is significant, both characterizing the Declaration as a sacred document and urging all Americans to adopt this document as the reference point for a shared political culture.

For both North and South, collective identity became increasingly intertwined with a spiritualized sense of national purpose. Like previous rhetorical instantiations of American civil religion, this identity cut across denominational and sectarian lines. Nevertheless, it is also possible to see in the religious rhetoric of the Civil War elements of a culture war in an earlier time. National sin was framed in terms of “they” and “them,” not “we” and “our.” The causes of the war and all the strife that came with it were rooted in the identification of an outgroup that was making similar claims on religious grounds. Given this, Reconstruction era religious rhetoric demonstrates the flexibility of the genre, broadening the boundaries of American national identity to reinvent a spiritualized sense of purpose.13

In the face of this trial, Lincoln’s rhetoric emerges as codifying the basic tenets of an American civil religion, identifying a point of shared spiritual identity for North and South. Robert Bellah’s well-known paper on American civil religion sees in Lincoln’s rhetoric the affirmation of a “universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people” (1967, 49).

Consider, for example, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged” (1865). When saying this, it would have been possible, within the bounds of the religious rhetoric genre, for Lincoln to claim that God had looked more favorably on the victorious North. Instead, Lincoln takes the opportunity to assert that both the North and South share a similar vantage to providence: “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes” (1865). Essentially, Lincoln argues that God did not “take sides” in the war and that divine providence is ultimately unknowable. This is an important rhetorical move, because it allows Lincoln to address his audience within the framework of the established genre (the United States is a blessed nation) without indicting the South or praising the North. Lincoln urges Americans to proceed as God would want them to, “With malice toward none” to “bind up the nation’s wounds” (1865).

Just as civil religion can be seen as a rhetorical devise that advanced reunification, the genre has also been appropriated by numerous social and political movements to promote movement cohesion. For example, during the Populist movement the rhetorical construction of a spiritual identity became a defining feature of the movement identity, characterizing members of the diverse Populist constituency as a distinct and unified embodiment of the American ideal (Williams and Alexander 1994). Perhaps the most well-known populist speech, famous specifically for its use of religious rhetoric, is William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. Bryan’s address contains the by-now familiar appeal to a common American identity, with the added element that laborers are being unfairly excluded from the fulfillment of the American way of life. Bryan invokes identity by making reference to the shared (and storied) American ancestry: “It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but 3 million, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation upon earth. Shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to 70 million, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers?” (1896). Bryan then argues that the gold standard is standing in the way of achieving the same level of independence achieved by the venerable forefathers of America: “Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” (1896). Labor, in this passage, is given a Christ-like status by being forced to wear a crown of thorns. In this way, Bryan invigorates the identity of laborers hurt by the gold standard, characterizing them not as the poor but as Christ-figures suffering for the sins of America.

This rhetorical strategy was employed specifically to align the emerging partisan identity with a spiritualized sense of Americanism. For example, Henry Demarest Lloyd argued that “The People’s Party represents the mightiest hope that has ever stirred in the hearts of the masses—the hope of realizing and incarnating in the lives of the common people the fullness of the divinity of humanity” (1894, 70). The People’s Party, it is suggested, was capable of realizing the divine status of America. James H. Davis, a Texas Populist, made a similar appeal to partisan identity, suggesting that the “National Demands of the Populist or People’s party” was on a par with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as documents consistent with the realization of “the grandest and most perfect civilization” (1894, 204). Davis’s treatise—suggestively titled “A Political Revelation”—is largely an attempt to codify the spiritual status of these documents and align them with Populist identity. Mary Elizabeth Lease also constructed party identity in religious terms, invoking a postmillennial eschatology reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards: “The old parties have set up statute laws against the natural rights of man, and thus, though his image, they strike at God. All true reforms, says Mazzini, are religious. So the populists of today represent a demand for enactment into law of the truths taught by Jesus; the truths which must prevail before Christ’s kingdom can be established, and the earth made a fit abode for man” (quoted in Williams and Alexander 1994, 8). Here Lease is arguing that, to prepare America for Christ’s coming, it is necessary to enact Populist Party goals. Populist identity is contrasted against the alternative parties, which are in direct defiance of God.

Identity-laden religious rhetoric used to foster coherent movement identity extended far beyond Populism. Indeed, given the tendency of the genre to assert a politics of shared identity, it is not surprising that the same rhetorical constructions show up across a variety of political movements. Red Scare anticommunism is an illustrative case. In the 1950s, anticommunism linked with American spirituality asserted a reified crossdenominational unity to assert a point of contrast with an irreligious outgroup (see especially Aiello 2005; Bates 2004).14 Joseph McCarthy posited one famous formulation of this identity in a well-known address in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he alleged that the U.S. State Department had been infiltrated by communist sympathizers, arguing that “we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity” (1950). McCarthy painted identity in Manichean terms, as a struggle between good and evil in which a distinctly American Christianity was responsible for world salvation. Writing in 1954, the Reverend Billy Graham put it in equally stark terms: communism was “Satan’s religion,” and “either communism must die, or Christianity must die” (1954, 42). The weapons to defeat communism included “Old fashioned Americanism,” which meant a “faith in God” and an “adherence to the Bible” (Graham 1954, 45). J. Edgar Hoover developed a similar contrast between American spirituality and the evils of communism in a 1957 American Mercury article titled “God and Country—or Communism?” In it, Hoover contends that the evils of communism could only be bested by “the American ideal,” which was “woven of unfaltering faith in God, faith in the destiny of this nation, of battles and of Valley Forge and Gettysburg” (1957, 100).15

The Red Scare, and in particular the drive to develop meaningful contrasts between the United States and the Soviet Union, led to a particularly explicit campaign to sanctify American symbols. McCarthy’s Wheeling speech included a somewhat contrived reference to Abraham Lincoln, immortalizing the president but also probably attributing him a deeper sense of religious attachment than is historically appropriate.16 Likewise, Billy Graham took pains to draw parallels between the U.S. Constitution and the Bible. In “Our Bible,” Graham argues that “As the Constitution is the highest law of man, so the Bible is the highest law of God” (1955b, 123). Graham’s implication is that the American Constitution has a special status before God and ought to be treated with divine reverence. Graham was adept at arguing the spiritual nature of American legal documents to denounce communism. In “A Christian America” (1955a), Graham developed an account of America’s sacred history, citing the Mayflower Compact, the original state constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, the federal Constitution, and even the words “In God We Trust” on American currency. As Graham contends, “Our place of leadership in the world is far higher than the average American can possibly comprehend” (1955a, 68; see also Aiello 2005).

Perhaps the most significant (and still reverberating) attempt to sanctify an American symbol was legislation mandating a rhetorical linkage between God and country in the insertion of the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The movement to insert the phrase “under God” into the Pledge formally began with the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, in 1951. Following a letter-writing campaign by the Knights, Catholic Congressman Louis Rabaut (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to alter the Pledge to mark a contrast with the “philosophical roots of communism, atheism, and materialism,” codifying the status of America as a nation “born under God” (quoted in Ellis 2005, 130; see also Domke and Coe 2010).

Although the movement struggled initially, it received the necessary shot in the arm in the form of a sermon delivered by the Reverend George Docherty at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in February 1954, for which President Dwight Eisenhower was in attendance. Docherty framed the “under God” revision as a necessary way to preserve “the American way of life” from the threat of “militantly atheistic communism” (1954). Docherty’s sermon is a case study in building a spiritualized sense of superordinate identity, invoking the Puritan origins of America, Lincoln’s sense of God and country, and America as the fulfillment of God’s providence. Given this, Docherty argued, something appeared to be missing from the Pledge of Allegiance: “and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the ‘American Way of Life.’ Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, the United States of America, this could be the pledge of any Republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer and sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity, for Russia is also a Republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship” (1954). Docherty’s sermon is thus a self-conscious reflection on exactly how to differentiate American identity from that of the Soviet Union. His conclusion is that the only answer to the Soviet Union is the American claim of divine grace: “To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American Way of Life’” (Docherty 1954).

Although American civil religion is self-consciously multidenominational, the relative inclusiveness of the identity has changed substantially over time. In particular, for much of American history, nonsectarian appeals generally applied just to Protestant denominations (Prothero 2007). Religious rhetoric during the 1950s morphed these boundaries considerably, softening restrictions against Catholics, Jews, and other marginalized groups in an effort to develop a united spiritual front against the Soviet Union.17 Thus, the exclusion of an outgroup necessitated the inclusion of other religious traditions.

This rhetorical shift is explicit in the Docherty speech. Docherty notes that America is rightfully one nation “under God,” not under a particular church or under Jesus Christ, “to include the great Jewish Community, and the people of the Moslem faith, and the myriad of denominations of Christians in the land” (1954).18 Eisenhower famously confirmed this sentiment, arguing that that “our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief—and I don’t care what it is.”(Quoted in Herberg, 1955, 84). In Eisenhower’s estimation, denominational membership was secondary to religious faith more generally because the latter was the particular point of contrast with the Soviet Union.19

The move toward greater religious inclusiveness in the American identity may have been particularly consequential for Catholics. Several prominent Catholic leaders took rhetorical advantage of the commu?nist menace to further integrate Catholics into the American religious narrative. One excellent example is Fulton J. Sheen, a Catholic bishop and star of the popular Life Is Worth Living television program. Sheen was a tremendously influential figure—winner of an Emmy for “Most Outstanding Television Personality” in 1952 and having a viewership of 5.5 million households by 1955—and also the American Catholic Church figurehead for anticommunism (Reeves 2001). Sheen embraced the main elements of the genre as an opportunity to develop an inclusive view of American spiritual identity. In contrast to the evils of communism, he declared on his television program that “the true battle against Communism begins in the heart of every single American. . . . If God is with us, then who can be against us?” (Sheen 1953, 62). For Catholics, a strong anticommunist stance thus provided a path to inclusion as Americans. As Donald Crosby writes, for Catholics, demonstrating patriotism through anticommunism was “an impenetrable cloak. . . . At last their critics would be unable to question their Americanism. They would be above suspicion, for they had become the most fully American of the Americans” (1978, 245; see also Ellis 2005, 130; Bates 2004).

From the Puritans to the Red Scare, American religious political rhetoric has undergone important transformations, from an expanding membership in American civil religion to a consecration of political symbols. And, of course, the aforementioned examples are not the end of the story. The role of religious identity rhetoric has been widely documented across numerous American political epochs, from the civil rights movement to the twentieth-century Christian social movements to the 9/11 response (Gutterman 2005; Lambert 2008; Murphy 2009). What is critical is that religious identity has been intertwined with the political in a remarkably consistent manner, constructing identity to build a superordinate sense of identity with a diverse American public.

 
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