From American Political History to Contemporary Campaigns

The evidence reviewed in this chapter adds an important layer of context to Reagan’s “city on a hill” passage quoted at the outset. Reagan was not inventing something new but was, rather, invoking a genre of American political speech, the principal elements of which have remained remarkably consistent over time. Religious rhetoric has persisted as a highly emotive genre, blending sorrowful lamentations with enthusiastic calls to action. Moreover, religious rhetoric has been consistently used to build a common spiritualized identity, transcending sectarian or denominational division. The ease with which Winthrop’s core message was adapted by Reagan to fit into a contemporary campaign is a testament to the power of religious identity and emotion in American politics.25

Although it is clear that emotive and identity-laden cues are the defining features of religious rhetoric, it is less clear precisely how and why they impact American politics and culture. For example, we know that Populist rhetoric invoked a common spiritual identity, but we can only speculate as to how these messages were received by their target audience. Similarly, although the evidence points toward expanding “enfranchisement” in the civil religion tradition, we have little systematic knowledge about where religious rhetoric locates the boundaries of the religious community. The next chapters take up this charge, examining the consequences of identity and emotion in religious political rhetoric.

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