The Limits of Civil Religion Identity and Political Inclusion

The language of civil religion identity does much to engender a sense of a shared and cohesive religious community that permeates American politics. The evidence also suggests, however, that civil religion rhetoric may impart a sense of alienation to the message recipients. Clearly, any suggestion that God is connected to American national identity is potentially a problematic source of exclusion for atheists and agnostics, a finding that has been echoed in other research (Wimberley and Christenson 1981). Moreover, references to God could even make staunch churchgoers uncomfortable if the image of God that is conveyed is at odds with their own religious tradition. In other words, if the God of American civil religion chooses sides with certain religious traditions or ideologies, civil religion could actually be a source of political alienation.

The evidence indicates civil religion identity does seem to rhetorically privilege particular conceptions of God—that of “paternal” and that of “provider.”22 Consistent with expectations, there is an element of exclusivity to civil religion rhetoric across campaigns, insofar as the definition of a shared spiritual community is rhetorically linked to a particular image of God. This is significant because varied concepts of God have strong denominational (Froese and Bader 2010), gender (Noffke and McFadden 2001), religious-commitment (Hammersla, Andrews-Qualls, and Frease 1986), and ideological (Lakoff 1996; Froese and Bader 2010) correlates in the mass public. In particular, “paternal” and “provider” concepts are generally more consistent with an evangelical and conservative understanding of God. The “maternal” and “companion” concepts of God—a closer fit with a liberal political orientation—are extremely rare in the sample as a whole and are even less common in civil religion passages.

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