Civil Religion Identity and the Question of a Culture War

Although positive emotive communication clearly exceeds the negative in religious campaign rhetoric, there is also good reason to expect this changes depending on the type of identity being cued in the passage. In particular, we expect the language of American civil religion to be glowingly optimistic and culture wars rhetoric to excel in inducing negative emotions. The results of this study bear out this prediction, with an interesting twist—culture wars rhetoric is best characterized by its anxietyladen character, not by its anger.

Figure 4.2 displays the levels of positive and negative emotive cues in religious rhetoric, sorted by civil religion, subgroup, and culture wars rhetoric. As figure 4.2 illustrates, civil religion appeals tend to paint a remarkably positive picture of a shared religious ethos. For example, Obama frequently remarked that “I believed that Democrats and Republicans and Americans of every political stripe were hungry for new ideas, new leadership, and a new kind of politics—one that favors common sense over ideology; one that focuses on those values and ideals we hold in common as Americans.”(November 3, 2008, Jacksonville, FL, Federal News Service) This statement is typical of the emotive thrust of civil religion appeals across the sample. A nonspecific version of American spirituality (“values”) is held to be something that is common to all Americans (“Republicans and Democrats”) and is defined in positive terms (“common sense,” “ideals,” and “newness”).

Emotive appeals by identity type

FIGURE 4.2 Emotive appeals by identity type

How emotive rhetoric is paired with different religious identities. The language of American civil religion stands out as a particularly positive emotive genre. Although culture wars rhetoric is considerably more negative, this negativity is defined by its anxiety-arousing elements, not anger. An ANOVA indicates that between-identity variance is significant at p < .05 for every emotion variable except anger. LIWC, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count; WDAL, Whissells Dictionary of Affect in Language

Culture wars rhetoric is nearly the polar opposite of civil religion rhetoric. Culture wars rhetoric tends to be considerably more negative than either its civil religion or subgroup counterparts. This negativity is overwhelmingly anxious, not angry. In identifying cultural and religious schisms, candidates tend frame the argument in terms of fear and uncertainty about the future, not acrimonious outrage. The rhetoric of the culture war is not so much an angry call to arms as the identification of some sort of corrosive element within American political culture. For example, in an illustrative passage in 1988 George H. W. Bush located the “unreasonableness” with “intellectuals” who were trying to squelch “legitimate rights”: “I do not recoil in horror from the idea of a child saying a prayer in a school. I support a moment of voluntary prayer or silent prayer. I know this is a difficult issue for some people. But the intellectuals have, in my friend Bill Bennett’s phrase, “fastidious disdain” for public expressions of religious sentiment that is, to my mind, unreasonable and ungenerous. The overwhelming majority of the people feel a moment of silence or silent prayer is a legitimate right” (September 27, 1988, Columbus, Ohio,

Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse). Bush’s tone here is negative, but it is not angry.9 Rather, his point is to raise doubts about another group of people who represent a challenge to a supposedly cherished right—individuals should be afraid about what might be coming if the other party gains power. As Brader (2006) observes, this type of appeal gains its power by “stimulating attentiveness” on threatening political cues. The power of the culture wars rhetoric thus comes from engendering fear of some political outgroup, not in conveying anger per se.

There is a good deal of academic debate over whether a culture war (or some form of opinion polarization) exists at all, how best to conceptualize it, and whether it has been increasing over time (Wolfe 1998; Abramowitz and Saunders 2005; Evans and Nunn 2005; Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2010). Although my aim in this book is not to address the degree of polarization in the American public, given that many culture wars theories rely on some transmission of cultural tension from political elites to the rank and file, the data in this chapter provide an interesting test of whether elite rhetoric has been becoming more provocative. Accordingly, I also examined the frequency in religious rhetoric of outgroup references, culture wars references, negative emotion, and anxiety, as they have appeared from 1980 to 2008.10

The evidence indicates that there is a substantial amount of variation in the extent to which candidates employ these rhetorical elements; nevertheless, there is virtually no evidence of an increase in the hostility of religious rhetoric or in the extent to which religious rhetoric has been used to call attention to cultural others. In addition, there is no evidence of a spike in 1992, which is often put forth as a critical year in hastening the growth of an orthodox-progressive divide in the public (Bolce and De Maio 1999).

Although there has been no steady increase in culture wars rhetoric over time, the use of culture wars and negative religious rhetoric does appear to follow a pattern. Specifically, a candidate’s decision to use negative religious rhetoric depended in large part on what his or her opponent was saying. For three of the four indicators I examined (culture wars rhetoric, outgroup references, and negativity), the candidates’ rhetoric scores during a political campaign varied in tandem.1 1 That is, neither Obama nor McCain spent much time referencing outgroups in 2008, but Mondale and Reagan both did in 1984. In other words, culture wars rhetoric begets more culture wars rhetoric.

It is impossible to know whether these culture wars references represent the candidates’ calculated responses to one another or whether they are spurious, with the candidates both responding to some exogenous political event that is prominent in a given year. In all likelihood, some combination of factors explains the prominence or absence of a culture wars-driven campaign. For example, much of the negative outgroup rhetoric in 1984 involved attacks and counterattacks over a proposed school prayer amendment. Neither candidate originated this debate—it had been raging long before the 1984 campaign. Each made the choice, however, to integrate the issue into his campaign and to frame the issue in a manner consistent with the notion of a culture war.

Thus, all the evidence in this study indicates that the rhetoric of a culture war has not been on the rise since 1980. It is necessary to add one significant caveat. The present study examines the rhetoric only of the major party presidential candidates and only the rhetoric framed in expressly religious terms. Accordingly, these data miss much of the abortion debate, for example, which is often framed in secular terms by unelected political elites. What can be said with certainty, however, is that presidential candidates are not leading the charge in polarizing mass opinion through the use of religious rhetoric.

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