A Closer Look at the Language of Religious Identity

It is important to begin by making a distinction between religious identity as it is evoked in political rhetoric and identity as it exists in minds of Americans. A politician might be more apt to use the word Christian around a group of self-professed Christians; nevertheless, political rhetoric and an individual’s propensity to identify as a Christian are ultimately two different things. The language of identity—the terms of campaign debate and discussion—should be studied as a distinct phenomenon in its own right. Rhetorical expressions of identity lend insight into how the American political community is being rhetorically constructed. If religious rhetoric constructs American identity in a manner that is too exclusive or too sectarian, it runs the risk of alienating large portions of a religiously diverse public. But if identity rhetoric is not explicit or exclusive enough, it could lose its potency altogether. In a country premised on the separation of church and state, it is important to understand what role religious identities play in the “national conversation” (Hart 2000, 139).

Three distinct rhetorical expressions of identity are important topics of inquiry. First, political speech invoking an American civil religion has profound implications for our understanding of the political community. It is important to understand how frequently candidates use these broad nondenominational appeals to engender a sense of religious cohesion in the American mass public. In other words, does the language of civil religion evoke a sense of religious community with many of the same features as more commonly recognized religious groups (such as specific denominations)? Evidence suggests that this may be the case. For example, Ronald Wimberley and James Christenson (1981) find evidence that the basic belief structure of civil religion exists alongside other types of religious group membership. Thus, civil religion rhetoric may itself be constitutive of a broad social group to which many Americans feel a strong attachment and from which many define their social selves.

It is also important to understand the place of religious subgroup appeals in political rhetoric. By subgroup I mean distinct religious groups such as denominations and interest groups. Subgroups provide an obvious point of religious identification for many Americans; however, the extent to which religious subgroups play an important role in political rhetoric is unclear. If candidates spend a good deal of time referring to denominational affiliations, voters could theoretically begin to view politics through a sectarian lens. At the same time, we know very little about how these subgroups are characterized—are specific denominations and traditions rhetorically privileged, or are they referenced only in the spirit of religious pluralism?

Finally, the culture wars genre is remarkable insofar as it finds a point of common identification with religious traditionalism or orthodoxy, gaining strength through the definition of religious outgroups. In other words, culture wars rhetoric seeks to generate ingroup favoritism through the definition of social others (Miller and Hoffmann 1999). Culture wars rhetoric is of interest not only in terms of which groups are favored but also in terms of how other groups might be characterized as a threat to religious identity.

These three types of religious identity rhetoric are theorized to have distinctly different consequences in the American public mind. As a point of illustration, consider the following statements, both made by Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign:

I was then, and I remain today, deeply drawn to the Catholic social mission, to the idea that, as President Kennedy said, here on earth God’s work must truly be our own. (September 11, 1992, University of Notre Dame, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse)

Let it be our cause to see that child reach the fullest of her God- given abilities. Let it be our cause that she grow up strong and secure, braced by her challenges, but never, never struggling alone; with family and friends and a faith that in America, no one is left out; no one is left behind. (July 16, 1992, Democratic National

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