Inclusive and Alienating?

In political campaigns, religious rhetoric is closely intertwined with the language of identity. Candidates make religious appeals, not to forward a particular issue agenda but, rather, to form a common social bond with prospective voters. Given the unique religious history of America as a multidenominational society with a deep religious heritage, religious rhetoric is particularly adept at forwarding the three types of group identities: specific subgroup identity, civil religion identity, and cultural ingroup identity codified around opposition to an outgroup.

Of these, the language of civil religion identity is by far the most common. Candidates regularly made reference to a civil religion that is shared by all Americans. Ultimately, the rhetorical expression of this identity might have produced a mixed response in the public—and also gained a mixed response from those concerned with the maintenance of healthy democratic institutions. On one hand, in asserting a shared civil religion identity, candidates were not asserting something that would be much more corrosive—that American is or ought to be solely concerned with upholding a particular religious tradition. Indeed, when candidates did invoke religious subgroups, they typically did so in the spirit of religious pluralism, by explicitly saying that all faiths (or no faith at all) are welcome in America. Thus, insofar as a civil religion identity truly represents a transcendent form of religious expression, it seems to be laying the foundation for social cohesion and a spirit of religious inclusivity.

Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that this is not the complete story regarding civil religion identity. Although the genre makes claims about a shared American religion, there is often an element of exclusivity not far beneath the surface. Candidates using the language of civil religion identity typically did so with a very particular image of God—as a “paternal provider”—in mind. Thus, the rhetorical expression of American identity is often exclusive and particular when expressed in religious terms (see also Marty 1987, 81-82).

Most religious rhetoric thus asserts that all Americans are included in a shared tapestry of American spirituality, even though exclusion may be implicit in much of this rhetoric. And what appears inclusive to some might feel exclusive to others. Two arguments clarify this point. First, despite evidence of the rhetorical prominence of an American civil religion, this view is not without dissent. Sociologists of religion and theologians have noted (and sometimes lamented) the degree to which the rhetoric of civil religion has mangled the distinctive aspects of religious faith traditions (for discussion, see Prothero 2007). In other words, in an effort to be nonsectarian, civil religion rhetoric may ultimately alienate devoted members of religious faith communities. Second, what claims to be nonsectarian is hardly ever so. Stephen Prothero (2007) notes the evolution from America as a Protestant nation (excluding Catholics) to America as a Christian nation (excluding Jews) to a Judeo-Christian nation (excluding Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other less common traditions). Moreover, there has been some reference to the emergence of an even more inclusive “Abrahamic” or Judeo-Christian-Islamic America following 9/11 (Prothero 2007, 116). Although the trend is certainly toward inclusivity in a certain sense, it is also noteworthy that what has been claimed to be a shared American religion has always excluded individuals of certain faiths and, of course, individuals who identify with no religious tradition at all.

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