Theorizing the Role of Emotive Religious Rhetoric in Contemporary Campaigns

Given what we have already learned about the nature of religious rhetoric, its emotive content is expected to exhibit several key characteristics. First, as previously discussed, religious rhetoric is expected to be readily distinguishable from other types of political speech. Moreover, the jeremiad tradition (discussed in chap. 2) suggests that there is room in religious rhetoric for it to manifest both positive and negative emotive characteristics (Murphy 2009). On the one hand, emotive religious rhetoric may call to mind “fire and brimstone” lamentations, such as Jonathan Edwards’s (1741) depiction of sinful humanity as a spider dangling over a fire by a single strand of web. This image suggests negative emotive characteristics, such as fear, threat, and anxiety. This same sort of negative language is instantiated in the “threats” identified by political pundits and politicians, such as “Godless communism” in the 1980s or “homosexuality” in the 1990s (an emotive impulse bearing some degree of similarity to culture wars theorizations).

On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that American spirituality is moving away from images of sin and depravity, and has come “to dwell on a lighter, more pleasurable plane, one on which good feelings [are] augmented and good spiritual times encountered without a haunting sense of sin and disgrace” (Albanese 2001, 181). In addition, whereas more polarized figures such as Pat Robertson may benefit, in some sense, from blaming the Hurricane Katrina disaster on godlessness, mainstream political candidates do not have an incentive to rely heavily on negative images. Indeed, some evidence suggests that audiences tend to adopt the emotions conveyed by speakers (Salovey and Birnbaum 1989; Bower 1991)—a transfer of affect from the speaker to the message recipient

(Ladd and Lenz 2008). In this case, using positive emotive characteristics in religious rhetoric makes strategic sense; if candidates choose to employ a genre that is inherently emotion inducing, it makes sense to do so in such a way that it triggers the recall of positive memories. Thus, it is likely that religious political rhetoric will be more apt to exhibit positive emotive characteristics than does other political speech and less likely to exhibit negative emotive characteristics.

This expectation does not, of course, preclude that possibility that candidates do, at times, use religion to induce negative emotions. Indeed, the findings in chapter 3 serve as evidence that different forms of religious rhetoric are tailored to specific electoral purposes. Given this, we can expect that negative religious rhetoric should be used almost exclusively to forward a vision of a cultural war, whereas positive and optimistic rhetoric should be coupled with American civil religion identity. Consistent with the notion that the purpose of civil religion is to build a sense of positive distinctiveness across a wide range of message recipients, this rhetorical style should be principally concerned with presenting a spiritualized version of American identity by optimistically arguing that the nation has a special role to play in the world order.

Culture wars theorists, of course, do not just argue that the rhetoric of a culture war is uniquely distinguishable. The argument—and concern— is that this rhetorical style is growing and that this has negative consequences on healthy political discourse. Specifically, culture wars theorists argue that there has been a growing polarization between the progressive and orthodox factions, with 1992 being a critical election year in drawing this line in the sand (Bolce and De Maio 1999). Given that culture wars are typically understood to be an elite-driven phenomenon, one sensible hypothesis is that the religious rhetoric used by presidential candidates has been growing steadily more hostile. Thus, it is important to test whether religious rhetoric has grown significantly negative over time. Moreover, it is important to know what the precise emotive composition of culture wars rhetoric is. If culture wars rhetoric uses negativity to convey anger and hostility, it may signal to religious factions a need to dig in their heels and prepare for battle (DeSteno, Dasgupta, et al. 2004). In contrast, if culture wars rhetoric tends to be more anxious in character, it may ultimately persuade people to reconsider their political options and seek more information about candidates (Brader 2006). The conclusions we draw about a culture wars statement ought to be informed by its exact emotive construction in the public sphere.

Finally, all of this so far has been painted with a rather broad brush, not taking stock of the fact that, in the time period under scrutiny (19802008), the Republican Party has enjoyed a considerable edge among religious voters. Indeed, research indicates that voters are more likely to see religious people and Evangelicals as being mainly Republicans, indicating that, for many, religious groups have a clear partisan profile (Campbell, Green, and Layman 2011). Because an association exists between party and religiosity, I expect this alignment to be related to strategic rhetorical choices. And because this association exists in the minds of voters, strategic actors will take advantage of it. Republican candidates have an incentive to use language that will facilitate a reliance on existing predispositions and group-based associations, and Democratic candidates should strive to create distance from voters’ religion-based standing decisions. Thus, we can expect that Republican candidates should score higher on measures of positively valenced emotions because they are thought to increase a reliance on habitual and group-based decision making and that Democratic candidates should use more anxiety and sadness to de- emphasize existing religious associations. Specifically, because anxiety can signal uncertainty and a need to further explore options, anxious religious rhetoric may be Democrats’ best option to persuade voters that the strong association between religion and party is an erroneous one.

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