The Tenor and Tone of Religious Political Rhetoric

So far we have seen not only that candidate religious rhetoric is distinguished by its unique emotive characteristics but that candidates have used religious rhetoric in systematic and predictable ways, given their electoral goals. Religious rhetoric is, on the balance, a positive genre, marked by optimistic rhetorical flourishes about American ideals. But this general conclusion masks much of the nuance used in crafting religious messages. Candidates often pair emotive language with specific identity cues to craft messages with ramifications that crosscut cultural groups. Culture wars rhetoric, for example, is quite negative, designed to fuel existing cultural tensions. The overarching message of culture wars rhetoric is that “there is another side out there, and you should fear it.” Culture wars arguments are framed specifically to suggest that a cultural or religious outgroup represents a very real threat to the ingroup’s beliefs and values. In contrast, American civil religion identity rhetoric is characterized in positive terms, infusing a distinctly spiritual identity with a sense of optimism and purpose about the future. Audiences exposed to this rhetorical mode will certainly walk away with the sense that the future of America is full of promise—at least for those who find a point of common identification with the main tenets of civil religiosity.

This rhetorical mode was used in a particularly interesting manner by then-candidate Obama, who combined the optimism of American civil religion with lamentations about spiritual and moral greatness lost. Many have noted Obama’s particular appeal with religious audiences, making inroads with the faithful where other Democrats have failed. Part of this, no doubt, involved Obama’s comfort in quoting scripture and preaching the social gospel. Nevertheless, other Democrats have tried this rhetorical strategy with little success. For example, Kerry’s 2004 stump speech regularly urged voters that “It’s time to reach for that future. It’s time to hear and heed the ancient proverb that should guide us today: When you pray, move your feet” (March 28, 2004, St. Louis, MO, PR News- wire Association). Despite this explicitly religious call to action, Kerry gained little notoriety for his use of religious language. What sets Obama apart from Kerry—and really every other presidential since Reagan—is his unique emotive style. Obama deftly lamented American greatness lost but combined this with a message of hope about the future in a style not unlike a Puritan jeremiad.

Although the Obama example helps make some sense of the 2008 election, there is an even more important general conclusion that should not be lost. That is, a candidate’s self-presentation as religious was largely due to the emotive framing of his message. This is not to say that the candidates did not have substantive differences in their messages—they did.

However, much of what distinguished a candidate as religious appears to be the emotive tools used to carry that message. This certainly appears to be part of what distinguished Bush from Kerry in 2004; Bush’s religious optimism score was dramatically higher than that of Kerry, despite the fact that both used comparable amounts of religious language.15 Given that the defining features of a candidate’s religious self-presentation may be as much emotive as issue-based, these findings raise questions about the nature of political representation and what governance should look like after candidates take office.

The strategic deployment of emotive religious rhetoric also reminds us that the rhetorical choices candidates make always occur in the context of existing partisan constraints. Overall, Republicans tended to use more positive religious rhetoric, whereas Democrats used more negative religious rhetoric—strategies that make sense, given the desires of the parties to emphasize or deemphasize the connections religiously predisposed voters are likely to draw. This suggests a self-conscious awareness on the part of candidates to use religious rhetoric to influence existing patterns of partisan voting behavior. The emotive tone connected to a reference to God or prayer is not incidental but, rather, calculated to make inroads with religious voters.

The evidence presented here does not indicate that religious political rhetoric is an inherently impassioned rhetorical form. Indeed, there is considerable variance in the emotive characteristics of candidate rhetoric. Nevertheless, religious rhetoric in recent presidential campaigns (across candidates) stands apart from other forms of campaign rhetoric with a distinctly positive emotive valence. Thus, contrary to the hopes of Madison and Lippmann, mass emotions may stem from (rather than run opposed to) elite opinion leadership. This finding should not, however, be taken as a lament about the role of emotion in democratic decision making, nor should it be taken as a criticism of how religion is rhetorically employed. As recent research (Marcus, Newman, and MacKuen 2000) has demonstrated, emotions play a measured and important role in the process of assessing and economizing political information. Consistent with this growing literature on emotions, these findings indicate that emotive religious rhetoric may play an important role in democratic decision making, signaling to voters the appropriateness of relying on their religious predispositions at times while critically engaging the political environment at others.

 
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