Religious rhetoric and the politics of identity

Family and God, honor, duty and country: now, let’s face it, some ridicule these principles as relics of the past. But when our problems are at their worst, when our hope is strained, when drugs and crime and the abandonment of children challenge the very character of our country, we know where to turn. Our tested values provide the only answers that work, the only answers that count.

—Senator Bob Dole, 1996

Speaking at an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, Bob Dole (R-Kans.) is characterizing drugs, crime, and child abandonment not just as public policy problems but as threats to the moral fiber of America— the “character” of the country. These challenges can be bested only by yoking together the time-tested values of God and country. Real answers to the most pressing problems of America must come through a reification of an American spiritualized identity. Dole also indicates that an outgroup is “ridiculing” this fundamental understanding. Although this group is not explicitly identified, there is a clear contrast between a secularized approach to politics and an approach reinforced by values and faith. This approach will not only “work” as a practical response to a policy problem but will “count” in a much more fundamental sense.

Understanding the content of appeals such as this is important. Whether candidates are referencing a common religious ingroup or are identifying “others” who threaten a specific worldview, the manner in which religious appeals are crafted speaks to questions of how religion is invoked as a matter of campaign strategy and, more fundamentally, to whether U.S. politics is characterized in cohesive or divisive terms. Along these lines, we ask in this chapter both which religious identities are being cued and how they are being constructed. Like Dole’s nondenominational call to return to a spiritualized understanding of American political culture, religious rhetoric is generally used in the spirit of a cohesive civil religion, not singling out particular traditions for benefit or blame as long as America is vested with some sense of the sacred. But religious rhetoric also contains an element of exclusivity. Even though candidates explicitly welcome members of all faiths into the American civil religion community, the civil religion has specific requirements and a particular creed that runs counter to many other religious traditions. Paradoxically, then, the language of American civil religion identity often contains an undercurrent of exclusivity in the name of political cohesion.

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