Inclusion, Exclusion, and Religious Political Rhetoric

Above and beyond questions of persuasive appeal, each of these identityladen rhetorical strategies has distinct consequences for defining the contours of the American political community. I first address this question by examining shared versus pluralistic conceptions of American religion, to see if candidates (either explicitly or implicitly) recognized more than one set of basic religious values. Figure 3.3 shows the percentage of shared

Pluralistic and shared religious rhetoric, by identity cue

FIGURE 3.3 Pluralistic and shared religious rhetoric, by identity cue

Percentage of religious passages coded as shared or pluralistic, sorted by the type of identity invoked in the passage. Percentages do not add up to 100 percent because some passages could not be classified as shared or pluralistic. Rhetorical differences in subgroup and civil religion appeals are significant at p < .001. For details, see the online appendix, http://facstaff.uww.edu/ chappc/.

versus pluralistic religious statements classifiable into one of the three identity genres. As the graph illustrates, references to a shared religiosity were overwhelmingly used to cue a civil religion identity, whereas pluralistic statements were much more likely to reference culture wars and subgroup identities.21

Figure 3.3 has several important implications for the study of American religious identity. First, it is notable that when candidates made reference to civil religion identity, they normally did so in a way that attempted to build spiritual cohesion. On the surface, there is nothing exclusionary about American civil religion—rhetorically, membership is open to and shared by all. For students of church-state separation, this finding may be something of a mixed bag. Although it is certainly noteworthy that all are welcomed into a distinct vision of American religious identity, it is an open question whether this comes at a cost. Does this shared identity wash away aspects of religious uniqueness, and does it disproportionately ask members of different faiths to sacrifice different things? In other words, asserting a shared identity could potentially alienate if, instead of acting as a true religious melting pot, civil religion privileges certain ingredients in the stew. As a point of illustration, consider Bush’s 2000 argument that “That’s the greatness of this nation— we’re all Americans, we all live in the greatest land that God has put on the face of the Earth: One nation, indivisible, under God” (October 30, 2000, Bosque Farms, New Mexico, CNN transcript). This passage is emblematic of civil religion identity rhetoric, employing the rhetorical elements identified by both Billig (2003) and Bellah (1967). Bush uses “all Americans” and “we” to build a sense of shared identity with the audience and grants America the status of “greatness” in the eyes of God. At the same time, this passage and other passages like it presuppose a particular conception of faith that is potentially alienating—a nominal nonsectarianism that, nevertheless, implies a particular religious worldview (Feldman 2005, 185).

As figure 3.3 illustrates, subgroup rhetoric rarely makes reference to a shared faith. This is consequential because it indicates that candidates for national office generally did not assert that the teachings of a specific tradition speak for the rest. In other words, it is highly uncommon to hear major party candidates for national office suggest something on the order of “this is a Christian nation.” Rather, subgroup identities are typically invoked in the spirit of religious pluralism, and they recognize the coexistence of multiple faith traditions in America. Religious groups were mentioned in speeches as part of a long list of faith traditions, but the emphasis was on the ability to worship differently—not on what these traditions have in common. For example, in 2004 Bush frequently noted that “if you choose to worship an Almighty God, you’re equally American if you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu. It’s the great tradition of America. And it’s the tradition that must be maintained” (August 28, 2004, Lima, Ohio, FDCH Political Transcripts). Although the statement reminded individuals of their own religious identities, the message here was ultimately that all faiths can worship as they choose, or not worship at all. In a similar vein, Bill Clinton in 1992 invoked his own religious faith while at the same time endorsing the freedom to not worship at all, saying “As the great American Baptist, Roger Williams, understood so well, without the freedom to say no, the word yes is meaningless” (September 11, 1992, University of Notre Dame, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse). Rather than using sectarian rhetoric to endorse a particular religious worldview, candidates thus appear to have referenced denominations (and other subgroups) to promote the inclusion of potentially marginalized groups.

Culture wars references are evenly split between shared and pluralistic concepts of American faith. These results, however, should be interpreted with caution. Unlike subgroup references, culture wars rhetoric rarely concedes the legitimacy of multiple faith traditions, and unlike civil religion rhetoric, culture wars rhetoric rarely paints a picture of spiritual cohesion. Instead, as figure 3.4 illustrates, culture wars identities are generally coupled with the recognition of some sort of a moral crisis. Whereas subgroup references acknowledge multiple faith traditions to champion religious pluralism, culture wars rhetoric sees pluralism as a moral crisis. As Reagan phrased it in his 1980 nomination acceptance speech, “The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal, and moral responsibility of Democratic party leadership in the White House and in Congress for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us” (July 17, 1980, Republican National Convention, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse). In this passage, Reagan asserts that the Democratic Party has a distinctly different moral vision for the country and that this vision has led to ruin.

Culture wars rhetoric as a vehicle to convey a moral crisis

FIGURE 3.4 Culture wars rhetoric as a vehicle to convey a moral crisis

Average level of moral crisis across three identity types (as well as religious rhetoric with no identity reference at all). Differences significant at p < .001. For details, see the online appendix, http://facstaff.uww.edu/chappc/.

 
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