The Emotive Appeal of Religious Rhetoric

Although the findings in chapter 2 suggest that the appeal of religious rhetoric in politics has been derived historically from its emotive character, in a sense all political rhetoric could be thought of as emotionally evocative. It follows that to develop a better sense of the role of religious rhetoric in elections, we need to first ask what makes religious rhetoric stand apart. Understanding the unique emotive distinctions that characterize religious appeals in presidential campaigns provides substantial insights into how religion shapes electoral politics and American political culture in general.

Religious Rhetoric and Secular Campaign Speech

As a first look at the emotive content of religious rhetoric, let us examine LIWC and WDAL emotion scores for our sample, comparing the average for all candidates’ speeches with the average for all passages using explicitly religious language. If emotive language is as closely intertwined with religious rhetoric as theory suggests, the religious rhetoric sample should distinguish itself along emotive lines. Consistent with these predictions, religious campaign rhetoric tends to be overwhelmingly positive, providing candidates with a vehicle to deliver optimistic messages to the electorate. As figure 4.1 illustrates, religious rhetoric scores are higher for all positive emotive cues and lower for all negative emotive cues compared with campaign speech in general. These differences are relatively large in magnitude, and statistically significant (p < .05) for eight of the eleven measures examined. Thus, although this approach glosses over some of the differences between discrete emotive cues, it is safe to conclude that voters hearing rhetoric steeped in religious language hear something much more positive than they do in typical campaign rhetoric.

Emotive appeals in religious rhetoric and secular campaign speech

FIGURE 4.1 Emotive appeals in religious rhetoric and secular campaign speech

Comparison of religious and secular campaign speech on all available measures of emotive language. Across all variables, religious rhetoric tends to be more positive and less negative than secular campaign speech. All differences significant at p < .05, except "positive feeling,” "anxiety,” and "anger.” LIWC, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count; WDAL, Whissell’s Dictionary of Affect in Language

The magnitude of these differences itself requires some examination because it is not at all obvious how a passage with a score of 3.1 (the mean “positive emotion” score across all speeches) is substantively different from a passage with a score of 5.41 (the mean “positive emotion” score in the religious rhetoric sample). To illustrate what figure 4.1 means in practice, I examine next two passages emblematic of typical emotive content. Consider first Reagan’s comment in 1984 that:

We must do more than talk about these values; we must restore them and protect them against challenge. And we must use our resources in and out of government to allow our historic values to enrich the lives of all who follow us—allowing our faith to be heard and to be felt, infusing our schools with the finest of quality, giving law enforcement all the tools they need to fight crime and drugs, and never limiting the opportunities for any American. All those belong to the future that we will build. And we didn’t come all this way as a nation without such values, and we can’t step into tomorrow without the continued strength and moral stamina they give us (September 3, 1984, Fountain Valley, California, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse).

LIWC scores this passage at 4.92 on “positive emotion” and 0.82 on “negative emotion,” which is approximately the positive and negative emotive average for our sample of religious rhetoric. Although the word “fight” is recognized by LIWC as a “negative emotion” and “anger” word, the overwhelming thrust of the passage conveys a sense of positive emotion. Not only are some religious words, such as “faith,” used in a very positive sense but words such as “quality,” “tools,” and “future” convey a message of hope. In contrast, consider the following passage from McCain’s 2008 stump speech, which approximates the average positive and negative emotion for campaign rhetoric in general:

So I need to make health care—that is obviously your key and prime concern right now for you—available and affordable, and I’m willing to have the federal government step in and help. But second of all, because these people with chronic illnesses or preexisting conditions cannot get it, we will have government-approved plans that provide them for it. We will create jobs, and we will help small businesses by keeping their taxes low. (October 2, 2008, Denver, Colorado, Federal News Service).

This passage is noticeably less optimistic than the Reagan passage, and although it is not a political attack, it also contains more cues that might induce negative emotions. While phrases such as “affordable” and “create” may certainly induce positive emotions in the audience, the passage is considerably more sedate than the Regan passage, a distinction that is captured by the LIWC scores (LIWC gives the passage a positive emotion score of 2.6). In addition, the passage contains more negative emotion words than would be typical in a religious passage (LIWC gives the passage a negative emotion score of 1.3). Words such as “concern” and “illnesses,” although not at all unusual in political speech in general, would be out of place in religious rhetoric. To summarize, the contrast in emotive tone between these two passages is quite striking and suggests that the magnitude of the difference between a typical religious passage and typical general campaign speech is substantively important. These passages illustrate that the significant differences illustrated in figure 4.1 are also substantively consequential in terms of the overall tone conveyed by a candidate, suggesting that religious rhetoric may ultimately have a different emotional effect on voters than campaign rhetoric generally.

The genre of religious campaign rhetoric thus tends to be much more positive than typical campaign speech. Although there are significant exceptions to this generalization (as we see in the remainder of this chapter), it is safe to conclude that, on balance, when candidates invoke religion, they do so to make voters enthusiastic and happy, not angry or fearful. This finding comports with Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen’s (2000) work on emotions, which finds that enthusiasm tends to be highly effective at mobilizing core supporters. Insofar as the vast majority of voters report some type of religious adherence, it makes sense for candidates to adopt strategies that are psychologically compatible with mobilizing this adherence.

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