The Emotive Tenor of American Civil Religion

Just as religious rhetoric is regularly coupled with a spiritualized (and nonsectarian) sense of American national identity, it is also delivered in a tone that adds a recognizable emotive punch to identity-laden appeals. And, just as appeals to the collective have their roots in covenant theology, the origins of emotive religious rhetoric can be found in the Puritan jeremiad,20 a rhetorical style that contrasts a sense of fear and uncertainty with unyielding optimism about the future.21 The jeremiad is inseparable from the concept of the covenant, lamenting the community’s breach of contract and moral derangement but also suggesting an optimistic “sense of purpose” about the future (Miller 1953, 29; Bercovitch 1978, 9; Murphy 2009). This “joined lament and celebration in reaffirming America’s mission” resulted in a mixture of positive and negative emotive impulses, contributing to a distinctive and rhetorically consequential tone (Bercovitch 1978, 11; Murphy 2009).

Perry Miller’s (1956) analysis emphasizes jeremiads as grim and self- condemning, lamenting the downfall of society. This negativity is a logical extension of how the Puritans understood their initial mission—as time passed and the colony failed to become a “city upon a hill,” the colonists blamed their own depravity. As Miller’s summarizes, “I suppose that in the whole literature of the world, including the satirists of imperial Rome, there is hardly such another uninhibited and unrelenting documentation of a people’s descent into corruption” (1956, 8) Examples of these negative lamentations abound in early Puritan rhetoric. In a quintessential example of the genre, Samuel Danforth lamented “Iniquity aboundeth, and the love of many waxeth cold, Mat. 24. 12. Pride, Contention, Worldliness, Covetousness, Luxury, Drunkenness and Uncleanness break in like a flood upon us, and good men grow cold in their love to God and to one another” (1670). These words take on an extremely negative emotive character, conveying both blame and anger. Danforth cites “unbelief” as the principal cause of these vices and blames hardships on an abandonment of the covenant: “Why hath the Lord smitten us with Blasting and Mildew now seven years together, superadding sometimes severe Drought, sometimes great Tempests, Floods, and sweeping Rains, that leave no food behinde them? Is it not because the Lords House lyeth waste?” (1670).

In contrast, Bercovitch argues that the distinguishing mark of “America’s first distinctive literary genre” is not woe but, instead, “its unshakable optimism. . . . it inverts the doctrine of vengeance into a promise of ultimate success, affirming to the world, and despite the world, the inviolability of the colonial cause” (1978, 6-7). For example, in the same sermon, Danforth concludes with scripturally based optimism, asking and answering: “But alas, our Bruise is incurable and our Wound grievous, there is none to repair the Breach, there is no healing Medicine. The Lord Jesus, the great Physician of Israel, hath undertaken the Cure” (1670). In other words, New England has sinned just as Israel sinned, although the colonists have reason to be optimistic because they continue to enjoy special blessings as God’s chosen people.

These dual characteristics—lament and optimism—are joined in Puritan religious rhetoric, and they continued to be a defining feature of religious rhetoric as it was incorporated into political discourse. As Andrew Murphy writes, “The jeremiad’s political and rhetorical power, its ability to move Americans to social and political action, lies in its ability to evoke a dynamic tension between despair and hope” (2009, 12) The jeremiad is also inexorably connected to the American civil religion tradition. The narrative of decline often involves a fall from America’s “chosen” status, and the logic of renewal makes sense only in the context of “God’s providential oversight” (Murphy 2009, 11).

Over time, the emotive character of sermons shifted from being a by-product of biblical interpretation to the essential feature of religious discourse.22 White describes this rhetorical shift as a transition from “proving a rationale for reasonable decision-making” to “persuading in the Ciceronian sense, that is, combining . . . the functions of teaching, winning over the listeners, and exciting the emotions” (1972, 29). No Great Awakening preacher had greater command of emotive rhetoric than Jonathan Edwards, who connected the rational faculty of the mind with the emotions, such that individuals comprehend both intellectually and emotionally (Miller 1956, 179). The “Affections,” Edwards writes, “are not essentially distinct from the Will, nor do they differ from the meer Actings of the Will and Inclinations of the Soul, but only by the Liveliness and Sensibleness of Exercise” (1746, 124).23

The move to a self-consciously emotive style is important because this made civil religion amenable to mass consumption, similar to how contemporary political observers characterize emotive messaging strategies in contemporary campaigns (Lakoff 2008; Westen 2007). In other words, this shift in style is significant because it helped win converts (Finke and Stark 1989, 37-39). In justifying “the Affections” as superior to “the Understanding,” Edwards rationalized a communicative style that could be mastered by untrained rhetoricians and that had tremendous appeal to unschooled audiences.

This emotive turn in discourse became politically consequential during the American Revolution. Whereas the intellectual grist of the Revolution came from liberal and republican traditions, the mode of communication relied heavily on revivalist traditions (Stout 1977). For example, Henry Cummings, a Harvard-educated Congregationalist heavily influenced by the Great Awakening argued on the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington that God had restrained the “wrath” of the British by giving Americans the courage to fight (Sandoz 1998, 658): “God restrains the wrath of man . . . by rousing those who suffer, or are likely to suffer by it, to stand in their own defense; and inspiring them with courage and resolution, to oppose and resist, to the utmost, all the mischievous efforts of the ambition, wrath, and anger of those proud aspiring mortals, who would, if possible, rob them of their natural rights, and plunge them into a state of servility” (Cummings 1781, 669). According to this, God intervenes directly in human affairs, “inspiring” the emotions necessary to fight off those attempting to vanquish natural rights (melding liberal “rights” discourse with emotive preaching). Even the secularly inclined Thomas Paine adapted emotive stylistic elements from revivalist preaching (Stout 1977, 537). For example, paying homage to the view of America as a “new Israel,” Paine used emotionally evocative imagery and Biblical passages to argue that Israel’s ultimate downfall was desiring a king: “And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of Kings, he need not wonder, that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honor, should disapprove a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogatives of heaven. Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reverse is denounced against them” (1776, 53).

In short, revivalist rhetoric provided an alternative to erudite religious rhetoric, affecting a style of rhetoric that was easily transmissible to mass audiences and influencing the spread of a democratic sentiment in the colonies (White 1972, 57). As Stout summarizes, “Despite the differences in intellectual substance between revivals and the rebellion, those movements exhibited a close rhetorical affinity that infused religious and political ideas with powerful social significance and ideological urgency” (1977, 521).

Given the accessibility and appeal of emotionally evocative religious rhetoric, it is not surprising that it has regularly been an important feature in social and political movements. Moreover, across a variety of movements, the emotive tone regularly combines lamentation with optimism about the future. For example, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator embodied key changes in the tenor of abolitionist discourse, from a legalistic and gradualist approach to an emotive argument urging immediate emancipation (Mayer 1998; Arkin 2001; Newman 2002). Stylistically, Garrison melded abolitionism with the emotive jeremiad, suggesting that the sin of slavery had corrupted the nation: “The Lord sees [slavery], and is displeased that there is no judgment; and he hath put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and is clad with zeal as a cloak—and, unless we repent by immediately undoing the heavy burdens and letting the oppressed go free, according to our deeds, accordingly he will repay, fury to his adversaries, recompense to his enemies” (1838). The use of emotive religious language was a selfconscious move by abolitionist leaders to appeal to individuals’ most fundamental moral fiber, a necessary move to shift the opinions of those for whom slavery was a righteous way of life. As Theodore Weld, a revivalist minister and abolitionist, reflected, “If it is not FELT in the vital tissues of the spirit, all the reasoning in the world is a feather thrown against the wind” (Weld, quoted in Young 2001, 103). Likewise, in reflecting on the use of language in the inaugural issue of The Liberator, Garrison remarked, “Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. . . . I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead” (1831).

A similar emotive style was important to the Populist movement. A lamenting tone was adopted to describe the current moral and economic state of America, but enthusiasm was also generated about future prospects. Populist politics were, of course, a response to late-nineteenth- century social conditions, and these social conditions provided the grist for jeremiad-like lamentations that argued that economic disaster was the result of American moral shortcomings. For example, James Baird Weaver’s 1892 populist book A Call to Action adopts the emotive tone of a jeremiad, asking “Does the young but great Republic hold out any hope for mankind? Are we still a beacon of light, or has our lamp soon grown dim?” (1892, 153). Protesting the American economic system while invoking the language of the Declaration of Independence, Weaver argues that depriving individuals of their “natural and inalienable safeguards, is an organized rebellion against the providence of God” (1892, 156). Weaver concludes what is largely a lament against the immoral state of the American economy with a hopeful call to action: “Throughout all history we have had ample evidence that the new world is a theater upon which the righteous movement now in progress should again forcibly remind us of our inevitable mission, under Providence, among the nations of the earth” (1892, 169).

Ignatius Donnelly’s 1892 preamble to “The Omaha Platform”24 follows a similar pattern, first invoking both the Declaration of Independence and asking for God’s blessing and then lamenting that “The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” In a rhetorical move offering hope through identity, Donnelly suggests that the party could ultimately transcend all that divided America, even the emotional baggage left by the Civil War: “We declare that this Republic can only endure as a free government while built upon the love of the whole people for each other and for the nation; that it cannot be pinned together by bayonets; that the civil war is over, and that every passion and resentment which grew out of it must die with it, and that we must be in fact, as we are in name, one united brotherhood of free men” (1892).

Evidence suggests that the emotive language of religious identity may have been a significant part of Populism’s success. While Populism has largely been characterized as an economic movement—with the role of religion relegated to the periphery—Rhys Williams and Susan Alexander argue that “Populism’s religious rhetoric was not superfluous; it became part and parcel of the movement’s explaining itself to itself as well as to potential adherents and opponents. Religious themes were integral to the attempts to explain Populism’s economic and political platforms, and they cannot be ignored if one is to understand Populism as a movement” (1994, 1-2). Building group identity through the language of civil religion is one key component of this argument. Populists were confronted with the need to build a diverse coalition across geographical regions. This consideration, coupled with the fact that solely class-based arguments have typically been unsuccessful in American politics, made the language of civil religion an ideal solution (Williams and Alexander 1994, 5).

Similarly, cold war identity construction made use of highly emotive religious language. This was often accomplished through the use of a jeremiad-like lament combined with a sense of the providential mission of America. McCarthy, for example, attributed communist infiltration to “an emotional hang-over and a temporary moral lapse” (1950). Likewise, James Fitfield, a Congregationalist minister, bemoaned the abandonment of the morals laws of the founding fathers and Pilgrims. Only “By bringing our individual lives into moral rectitude,” he wrote in a 1954 American Mercury article, “[can] we eliminate anxieties and fears and experience within ourselves the peace and strength of God despite the A-bomb” (Fitfield 1954, 48). Fitfield thus employs a mixture of anxiety-inducing language—in particular the threat of nuclear war—and a glimmer of hope in suggesting that Americans might yet purify their morality. Bishop Fulton Sheen also adopted an emotive jeremiad tone, probing both why God had subjected Americans to their current plight and also how Americans might right the course to fulfill God’s divine plan. In “The Role of Communism and the Role of America,” Fulton Sheen argues that the world (including America) had become “sick” through a sort of moral lapse and that communism was one symptom of this. Nevertheless, “We are destined, under Providence, to be the secondary cause for the restoration of freedom and liberties of the peoples of the world” (Sheen 1953, 268). God, Sheen explains, is the primary cause, suggesting that America is God’s instrument on earth. Sheen uses an emotive Christian metaphor to drive this point home for his listeners: “the world is being crucified by communism. The long arm of Providence is reaching out to America, saying, ‘Take up thy Cross’” (1953, 270).

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