Religious Rhetoric and Partisan Differences

Thus far, the evidence is clear that religious rhetoric defines itself through a remarkably positive tone and that this tone is particularly evident in civil religion rhetoric. Nevertheless, although candidates’ using positive language makes sense, especially in a country marked by high rates of religious adherence, positive emotion is only one part of the story. A second part of this story involves the extent to which the emotive character of religious rhetoric interacts with standing party affiliations. The Republican Party has enjoyed a long-standing advantage among more religious voters, whether we conceive of religiosity as “religious commitment,” “orthodoxy,” or “church attenders” (Layman 2001; Olson and Green 2006). Given this, we expect that Republicans should embrace a different emotive tone in their religious appeals, specifically adopting a more positive and optimistic tone. This is consistent with psychological theories of emotion and politics, and it also makes intuitive sense. When Republicans reach out to religious voters, their main aim is to drum up a higher voter turnout by encouraging a decision calculus consistent with standing heuristic decision making. They are, in a sense, preaching to the converted, and it is sensible for them to embrace a rhetorical strategy centered around encouraging people to rely on what they already “know to be true” about religion and partisanship (see also Campbell, Green, and Layman 2011). We expect Democratic candidates, on the other hand, to be more apt to use religious language to encourage voters to think through and complicate standing links between party affiliation and religiosity. To sway the religious electorate, Democratic candidates need to convince voters that what they might presuppose about religion and partisanship is wrong. Negative rhetoric— and in particular anxiety cues—are well equipped to do this.

As figure 4.3 illustrates, candidate rhetoric in our sample generally meets these expectations. Republicans scored higher on all measures of positive emotion, and all these differences are statistically significant at p < .05.12 As displayed in figure 4.3, this positivity peaked for George W. Bush and Reagan. This finding generally fits with the conventional wisdom about Bush’s and Reagan’s rhetorical styles, which often steeped religious descriptions of American achievement in positive emotive exuberance. As Reagan frequently said during his 1984 campaign, “if we can strengthen our economy, our security, strengthen the values that bind us, then America will become

Partisan differences in emotive religious rhetoric

FIGURE 4.3 Partisan differences in emotive religious rhetoric

Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) and Whissells Dictionary of Affect in Language (WDAL) emotion scores for presidential candidates, sorted by party affiliation. Republican candidates score higher on all positive emotion variables (left) and lower on all negative emotion variables (right). All differences are statistically significant at p < .05.

a nation even greater in art and learning, greater in the love and worship of the God who made us and who’s blessed us as no other people on Earth have ever been blessed” (October 26, 1984, Fairfield, CT, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse).

In contrast, Democratic religious rhetoric tended to be considerably more negative than that of Republicans. This is particularly interesting, given that secular speech did not follow this pattern. In fact, when we examine the secular campaign stump speeches, it is clear that Republicans tended to be the more negative party of the two, outscoring the Democrats on every single measure of negative emotion. Nevertheless, this pattern was reversed when the parties spoke to voters in religious terms.

This reversal is expected, particularly in the case of Democrats’ anxious religious rhetoric. Insofar as Democrats can arouse anxiety surrounding religious issues and identities, they can create uncertainty in the minds of voters regarding the traditional association between the Republican Party and faith. Interestingly, Democratic candidates also tended to adopt an angrier tone in their religious appeals. This is somewhat surprising, given that anger is typically associated with strong group dynamics—angry people tend to dig in their heels and show resistance to opinion change.

A qualitative examination of Democratic religious rhetoric high in anger provides some guidance for interpreting these results. Angry Democratic rhetoric appears to have been of two types. First, much of the rhetoric was a direct response to the Republican monopoly on the religious vote. For example, in the 1984 campaign Mondale frequently responded to attacks from the Religious Right: “But I am alarmed by the rise of what a former Republican congressman has called “moral McCarthyism.” A determined band is raising doubts about our people’s faith” (September 6, 1984, Washington, DC, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse). As this passage indicates, much of the angry Democratic religious rhetoric was in response to the relationship between religion and the Republican Party. This defensive posture has characterized much of the Democratic religious rhetoric from 1980 to 2004.

The second type of angry Democratic Party rhetoric was due to the party adopting a posture of moral outrage with regard to particular issues. For Clinton in 1996, it was church burnings—an issue that is obviously impossible to discuss in nonreligious terms. For Gore in 2000, it was health-care reform—insurers were frequently described as “playing God.” Mondale in 1984 also employed this strategy regarding the so?cial safety net, coupling anger-inducing rhetoric with a reference to the Republican outgroup: “If you pull their lever, you’ll put their values in charge of the most vulnerable people in our nation: the elderly, the handicapped, the disadvantaged, the unemployed” (October 11, 1984, Miami, FL, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse). This rhetorical strategy is interesting because it appears that Democratic candidates were trying to reframe traditionally Democratic issues—from hate crime to health care to disability—in religious terms.

Because a good deal of attention has been devoted to Obama’s appeal with religious voters, it might be somewhat surprising that he did not score particularly high on optimism, anger, or anxiety—emotions that typically garner the interest of political psychologists interested in persuasion. Interestingly, Obama’s religious rhetoric stood out in one category considerably less studied by psychologists and political scientists—sadness. Obama’s WDAL sad score is 4.7, well above the sample average of 2.5.13 Obama used sadness in a unique and systematic manner, comparable only with Reagan in the sample of presidential candidates. Obama lamented the possibility of an American fall from greatness while at the same time offering a message of hope for the future. Interestingly, Obama’s LIWC sadness score correlates positively (and significantly) with his optimism score. In other words, a lament rarely occurred without a promise that a spiritualized version of American greatness would return.14 For example, Obama regularly remarked: “We can build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century and restore our moral standing; that America, once again, is that last, best hope for all those who are called to the cause of freedom and who long for lives of peace and who yearn for a better future” (October 28, 2008, Harrisonburg, VA, Federal News Service). In this passage, moral standing has been lost, suggesting an America that has, in a certain sense, broken its covenant. At the same time, Obama sees a restoration of this moral standing in the future, bringing with it peace and freedom. Of all the candidates studied, Obama’s emotive tone is quite remarkable—not for its positivity alone but, like the eighteenth-century jeremiad, for its positivity in the face of tribulation.

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