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Home arrow Religion arrow Religious Rhetoric and American Politics: The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns
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Religion, Emotion, and Politics

Understanding emotion is of central importance to understanding the nature of religious experience, and this connection is particularly important to understanding religiosity in the American case. Psychologists have long noted a relationship between religion and emotion. William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), famously theorized that “religious sentiments” were inseparable from everyday emotional experience. Contemporary psychology follows suit in affirming the centrality of emotion to religious experience. As Peter Hill and Ralph Hood conclude, “a complete analysis of religion and religiousness must necessarily involve psychological concerns, not the least of which will include both affective and unconscious processes” (1999, 1039).

The emotional impulse in American religion stems from a revivalist tradition heavily indebted to emotive rhetoric and to the related jeremiad tradition that has been fully integrated into American culture (Bercovitch 1978; Murphy 2009). Indeed, Stephen Prothero argues that the current fault lines in American Christianity can generally be understood in terms of the relative “emotionality” of adherents’ faith experiences, with the religious landscape being composed of doctrinally oriented “confession- alists,” emotionally oriented “experientialists,” and ethically oriented “moralists.” Some combination of emotion and morality, Prothero argues, tends to dominate the current religious landscape (2007, 119-20). Thus, whereas psychologists have argued that religious experience is inseparable from emotion, religious historians have provided evidence that this connection is exemplified in the case of American faith traditions.

Just as emotions are intertwined with religion, so too are emotions central to understanding political life. This observation is not a recent one. The U.S. Constitution was designed (or at least defended) out of a concern that “The passions, not the reason of the public would sit in judgment” (Madison 1788b). Similarly, Walter Lippmann (1922) famously lamented that emotion-based judgment would be the demise of democratic polities. For many years, the assumption was that emotions were inimical to effective democratic governance, despite the fact that they were fundamental facets of the human condition. In contrast to Madison and Lippmann, more recent research has substantially revised this understanding of emotions, arguing that “emotion and reason interact to produce a thoughtful and attentive citizenry” (Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000, 1). In Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen’s formulation, emotions can help individuals economize political decision making, directing attention toward threatening stimuli while influencing, when appropriate, a reliance on existing predispositions. Emotions are central to democratic life and can actually play an important and helpful role in helping individuals sort through the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of politics in a sensible manner (Lippmann, 1922, 81).

Political psychologists generally focus their attention on individuals’ emotional experiences and not on the rhetorical cues that bring about these emotions in the first place.1 Emotions are “specific sets of physiological and mental dispositions triggered by the brain in response to the perceived significance of the situation or object for an individual’s goals” (Brader 2006, 51; see also Russell 2003). As such, emotions are something that exist within the individual. Language can induce or express emotions, but language use per se cannot be emotional in the same sense as an individual is emotional. Anton Marty (1908), a German linguist, has made the distinction explicit between language use and individuals’ emotional states, distinguishing between “emotive communication” and “emotional communication.”2 Whereas emotional communication is a spontaneous overflowing of emotions for principally cathartic purposes, emotive communication is a “strategic signaling of affective information in speech and writing . . . in order to influence partners’ interpretations of situations and reach different goals” (Caffi and Janney 1994, 328). Emotive communication is thus self-presentation with no necessary relationship to the speaker’s own emotional state. Its aims are ultimately persuasive.

This distinction is critical because it suggests we need to carefully distinguish the characteristics of a message from the emotional state of an audience and a speaker. When scholars use terms such as emotional appeals (Rosselli, Skelly, and Mackie 1995; Brader 2006), they are typically referring to the expected emotional inducement of a particular stimuli, even though this term often confounds the fact that the qualities or characteristics of the message itself are distinct from the individual’s response to that message. Indeed, because individuals can have different emotional responses to political messages, it makes sense to clearly separate message characteristics from individual emotions.

This confusion has led to an emphasis on the consequences of emotions, not their triggers. Most research studying politics and emotion, although often highly realistic, is done in a laboratory setting with little examination of the actual frequency of emotion-inducing messages in real-world campaigns. Moreover, once an emotion is successfully induced through experimental stimuli, the content of the political stimuli is reduced to secondary importance. As Jack Glaser and Peter Salovey summarize, “Although we have seen no shortage of investigations of the role of affect in social judgment, some even bearing, however indirectly, on the influence of target affect, the vast majority of research and theory has focused on the moods or emotions of the person making the judgment . . . investigating how the affective behavior of targets of judgments influences those judgments may prove crucial” (1998, 167).

Most of the available evidence suggests that emotions are incredibly important to politics, although we know very little about what induces these emotions in the first place. And, as we have already seen, religious rhetoric is often distinguished by its unique emotive content. It thus makes sense to turn to religious rhetoric to look for the origins of this important psychological process. Understanding these dynamics is important for several reasons. First, as already suggested, the emotive character of religious rhetoric may have distinct consequences in terms of how individuals ultimately make political decisions. Second, in more gen?eral terms, the emotive characteristics of religious rhetoric should tell an important story about the treatment of religion by candidates for elected office. Is religious rhetoric crafted so as to goad people into a culture war or to bring about optimism about the future? This question also raises larger questions of political representation. Given the ability of enthusiasm, anger, and anxiety to make religious electoral cleavages salient, the coupling of emotion with religion could create challenges to governing in a cohesive manner.

 
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