The Centrality of Civil Religion Identity in Political Rhetoric
The evidence clearly indicates that religious rhetoric is principally used to activate a sense of group-based attachment in the mass public. Nearly 70 percent of all religious references were coupled with some sort of reference to a social ingroup—a denomination, a political party, or an undefined spiritual community. This high rate of ingroup references in religious rhetoric far eclipses any other rhetorical feature in the sample. For example, there is relatively little issue content in candidates’ religious rhetoric, indicating that candidates are generally not using religious language to develop sophisticated policy-based arguments.1 2 Moreover, the analysis uncovers little evidence that religious rhetoric is consistently coupled with any particular political issue.
To be sure, candidates have had particular issues that they were most comfortable framing in religious terms. For example, Obama often spoke of health care and education in religious terms, whereas George W. Bush in 2004 was more likely to use religious language to justify foreign policy initiatives. Nevertheless, it is important to stress that, even on occasions that Bush or Obama did frame an issue in religious terms, the use of religious rhetoric was probably more geared toward the assertion of a common identity than with a robust policy justification. For example, Obama characterized education in religious terms by arguing:
Because I know that if we can just bring our education system into the 21st century, not only will our children be able to fulfill their God-given potential, and our families be able to live out their dreams; not only will our schools out-educate the world and our workers outcompete the world; not only will our companies innovate more and our economy grow more, but at this defining moment, we will do what previous generations of Americans have done—and unleash the promise of our people, unlock the promise of our country, and make sure that America remains a beacon of opportunity and prosperity for all the world (September 9, 2008, Dayton, Ohio, States News Service).
In this passage, Obama frames the case for education reform in religious terms. More critical, however, is that Obama deftly connects this quasireligious sense of purpose to the larger purpose of the nation and sense of mission in the world. Although the passage is about education, its larger purpose is a clear statement of collective identity wrapped in a higher spiritualized calling. Education is necessary to fulfill “God-given potential” and the “promise of our people.” Likewise, in his 2004 campaign, Bush frequently told the story of an Iraqi amputee with whom he visited in the Oval Office: “A guy took a Sharpie, folded it in his new hand, and wrote, ‘God bless America,’ in Arabic. You see, he said, ‘God bless America’ because he had been liberated from the clutches of a brutal tyrant who whimsically could cut off a hand (August 6, 2004, Washington, D.C., Federal News Service). In terms of policy, Bush was essentially using this anecdote as a rationalization for the Iraq war. But rhetorically, the passage has an aim similar to the Obama passage. America is accorded a blessed status in the world order—the Iraq invasion is portrayed as
American force acting out God’s will. This is consistent with the notion that civil religion is a remarkably flexible genre. Despite vast differences in the issue content of the two passages, both assert a sense of shared spiritual identity.
Interestingly, traditional cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage were almost entirely absent from the sample of religious pas- sages.13 This is not to say that candidates did not discuss abortion, only that they chose to do so in a way that was not explicitly religious. This finding is consistent with other research on party messaging strategies. For example, Mark Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (1996) provide an excellent discussion of the changing rhetoric of the Christian Right from the 1980s to the 1990s, arguing that the overt religious appeals have been toned down, that the thrust of the message has been mainstreamed, and that leaders now avoid overt biblical references. Although Rozell and Wilcox are analyzing Christian Right movement leaders, not presidential candidates, the logic is essentially the same: for abortion appeals to effectively resonate with a broad constituency, they need to avoid explicitly religious elements.14
Ingroup scores are consistently high. In addition, there is a substantial amount of interesting variation regarding which candidates linked religion with social and religious ingroups. For example, both Bush in 2004 and Clinton in 1992 yoked together religion and social groups nearly 85 percent of the time, whereas Dole did so only 53 percent of the time. Interestingly, even though Mondale used religious language overall at a higher clip than any other candidate, he comparatively rarely did so to make reference to religious ingroups (only 58 percent of the time). All this suggests that, although all candidates tended to use religious words at a roughly comparable rate, there is great variation in the manner in which they used religion to communicate identity.
It is also important to examine which identities are typically cued by religious language. In chapter 2 we found evidence that references to a distinctly American religious identity have been a powerful force across American political history, and as figure 3.2 illustrates, contemporary presidential campaigns have continued this trend, frequently invoking an American civil religion identity. Fully 55.8 percent of all passages in the religious rhetoric sample (and 80.5 percent of all ingroup-based appeals in the sample) made a reference to civil religion identity, either by referencing a common American spiritual identity or by making vague references to include the audience in a shared spiritual conception.
FIGURE 3.2 Frequency of identity cues in religious rhetoric
Percentage of religious rhetoric containing ingroup references (divided into civil religion and subgroup religion categories) and culture war references for all major party presidential candidates, 1980-2008.
In contrast, in the sample of 1,200 passages, only 26 actually made reference to a specific religious subgroup, and only 33 mentioned warring progressive and traditionalist groups. This does not mean that these references are unimportant—indeed, they could have a disproportionate effect on the target group. For example, culture wars rhetoric contains a disproportionate emphasis on controversial cultural issues such as prayer in public schools, whereas civil religion rhetoric is largely unused for this topic. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of presidential stump speeches, civil religion identity is clearly the dominant campaign norm. Candidates generally use religious language to excite individuals’ identities as part of an American spiritual community, not as members of particular religious subgroups.15
The content of these group-based references is itself important, indicating that references to a civil religion identity also implies a particular belief structure. First, the evidence suggests that civil religion identity references are closely intertwined with a “minimal monotheism.” When candidates make references to American civil religion they generally did so with nondenominational references to a divine creator, whereas this was not the case for either culture wars rhetoric or subgroup rhetoric.16
Moreover, passages cuing civil religion identity also frequently indicated that the United States is particularly “blessed” or has some special status in the world order. In the sample, 509 of the 669 civil religion passages made a nominal linkage between religion and country, and 89 of these passages did so in a way that explicitly accorded the United States a sacred status.1 7 One such interesting passage comes from Bush’s 2004 campaign, in which he frequently argued that “This is a time that requires firm resolve and clear vision and the deep faith in the values that makes this a great nation. And one of those—one of those deep faiths we believe and understand is that we know that freedom is not America’s gift to the world, freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to each man and woman in this world.”(October 25, 2004, Daytona Beach, FL, Public papers of the Presidents). The passage states that a “deep faith” and “values” are part of what make America a great nation, suggesting that America owes its success to its religiosity. In terms of religious content, the phrase “deep faith” is quite diffuse, with no particular investment in any one faith tradition—what Will Herberg (1955) has characterized as an American “faith in faith.” Although the passage goes out of its way to say that America is not responsible for giving freedom to the rest of the world, the American knowledge of this freedom is itself a divine gift. All this is closely connected with an assertion of collective identity— God’s divine gift is something that “we believe” and “we understand” (making use of the first-person plural pronouns that Billig 2003 theorizes are essential to building a common identity). This passage rallies individuals’ sense of American attachment by defining its special place in the world order.
Significantly, subgroup and culture wars identities are not connected to the idea of America having a blessed or sacred status. Of the twenty- six subgroup identity passages, only one makes a link between a specific religious identity and America as a blessed nation,18 suggesting that, consistent with the civil religion thesis, specific religious subgroups are not typically linked to the status of America in the world order. In addition, subgroup identity actually has a negative association with the use of first-person plural pronouns, indicating that when referencing religious subgroups candidates generally did not need to make use of ambiguous pronouns to engender cohesiveness with the audience.19 The strategic value of subgroup references lies elsewhere than in eliciting broad-based identity-laden considerations.
Likewise, culture wars rhetoric has a negative relationship with the characterization of America as blessed. This pattern makes sense. The assertion of either a progressive or orthodox identity relies on the existence of a competing group, battling (in the words of Pat Buchanan) for the “soul of America” (August 17, 1992, Republican National Convention). The status of America is thus not yet decided—should the “other side” win, the United States would cease to have any sort of divine relationship with the Creator, instead existing as a source of moral degradation in the world order. Unlike civil religion rhetoric, which gains its persuasive appeal from the assertion of the positive distinctiveness among all Americans, culture wars rhetoric gains its appeal through the definition of quasi-religious outgroups.20