Religious rhetoric and the politics of emotive appeals

I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your President. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth, and with hard work, strong faith and a little courage, great things are always within our reach.

—Senator John McCain, 2008

From Puritan jeremiads to the Bryan’s populist invocations, one defining feature of religious rhetoric is its strong emotive language. But we know very little about how its use varies to suit different political demands and what the consequences of emotive religious rhetoric are on the nature of American political culture. For example, many have expressed concern that the rhetoric of a religious culture war is polluting American political discourse (Hunter 1991; Evans and Nunn 2005). To the extent that religious rhetoric is infused with the language of anger, anxiety, and hostility, it provides the possibility for a contagion effect on the mass public. At the same time, the language of American civil religion is often characterized by its glowing optimism about the future of America democracy and the place of America in the world order. Given this, it is certainly possible that religious rhetoric is more conducive to a spirit hope than to political division and exclusion.

Religious rhetoric thus lends itself to varied emotive tones, and these varied tones are clearly consequential. Given this, it is surprising that we have little systematic evidence on how emotive language is actually used in practice. The John McCain passage quoted here serves as an excellent example. The word “fight,” conveys the sense that a confrontation is imminent and that the stakes are high. McCain is not fighting for a particular policy stance but, rather, for something much more fundamental—a “reason to thank God.” This emotive tenor—pairing “thank God” with “fight”—is, of course, not the only option available to presidents. Both

John Kerry and George H. W. Bush regularly linked the phrase “thank God” with words such as “prosperity” and “love,” signaling an intense optimism. In 1996, Bill Clinton often used the phrase “thank God” when speaking of international and domestic crises to adopt a tone of somber reverence. Religious political rhetoric readily lends itself to emotive displays and gives candidates a good deal of flexibility with respect to the affective punch of the message.

As these examples indicate, there is tremendous variety in the emotive pitch of religious rhetoric. In this chapter, I am concerned with understanding this variation. Just as the nature of identity cues informed our understanding of who is included in the rhetorical expressions of America’s spiritual identity, so too can an examination of emotive cues tell us a good deal about the tone and tenor of American political discourse. Although I find that the overwhelming norm surrounding religious rhetoric is positive affect, a deeper look at the evidence suggests that the emotive thrust of a candidates’ rhetoric is incredibly nuanced. Candidates adopt different emotive styles to resonate with the identities of the audience members and to accommodate existing partisan patterns of voting behavior.

 
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