The consequences of religious language on presidential candidate evaluations

This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed.

—President Barack Obama, 2009 Inaugural Address

In this passage, President Obama is invoking a by now familiar genre. Even in the midst of great uncertainty, America has a divinely inspired place in the world order. But when a president speaks, do Americans listen? Does invoking this creed have a special resonance with the American mass public—a strong enough pull to influence the manner in which Americans evaluate candidates and elected officials? Addressing this question not only helps us understand the place of religious rhetoric in American politics but also how campaigns influence political behavior more generally.

Political scientists have debated the extent of the influence of rhetoric on the electoral process since the advent of the modern campaign. One of the more enduring points of contention has been whether stable predispositions govern political decision making from one election to the next or whether contextual factors such as campaign advertising and political debates exert a significant and varied influence. One scholarly tradition has long claimed that news media and advertising actually exert minimal effects on individuals’ attitudes (Klapper 1960). Moreover, evidence suggests that certain predispositions—partisan identification in particular— are unmoved movers that are incredibly important in determining electoral attitudes and that are resistant to persuasive forces (Campbell et al. 1960; Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002). These predispositions preclude the possibility of substantial campaign effects (through advertising, media coverage, etc.) because the relationship between stable attitudes and vote choice is unwavering.

On the other hand, recent research has produced, through both improved measurement (Bartels 1993) and nuanced theorization (Druck- man 2005), substantial evidence that campaigns have measurable effects on citizen attitudes and electoral outcomes (Kinder 1998). In particular, evidence shows that contextual forces can prime the importance of numerous factors, including identity, on political evaluations (Transue 2007). Likewise, increased attention to the role of emotion in politics has shed light on the electoral decision calculus. For example, Brader (2006) has produced evidence that campaign advertising works by influencing individuals’ affective states, which in turn has consequences on (among other things) the extent to which voters rely on existing predispositions in electoral decision making (Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000).

Religious rhetoric provides the penultimate test case study in the stability versus change debate. Religion is among individuals’ most stable predispositions (Sherkat 2001; Jennings and Stoker 2007).1 That an individual’s religiosity is so stable suggests that the extent to which religion matters in a given campaign ought to remain relatively consistent between elections. But, at the same time, the relationship between religious and political attitudes in the electorate is changing (Kohut et al. 2000; Olson and Green 2006). Somewhat paradoxically, then, there are reasons both to view religion as an unmoved mover and as a force that can exert a variable impact from election to election.

To understand the role of religiosity in electoral behavior, it is helpful to begin by making a distinction between affiliation with a particular denomination or tradition, beliefs about the divine, and level of religious commitment or involvement (Olson and Green 2006).2 Affiliation is perhaps the most intuitive way to think about religiously based electoral behavior (Herberg 1955). Religious communities have long coalesced around a particular party, due to a shared identity with candidates from that party, a platform consistent with the doctrine of that religious community, or policies that would otherwise benefit members of that religious group. For example, mid-twentieth-century Catholic support for the Democratic Party arose in part because of prominent Catholic party leaders such as Al Smith and John F. Kennedy. Moreover, the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered Catholics a vision of economic equality and an immigration policy more amenable to Catholic social mobility while at the same time opposing anti-Catholic bigotry (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2006).

Although affiliation is still an important force in American politics, recent scholarship suggests that new belief-based fault lines may be reshaping traditionally affiliation-based divisions. Specifically, evidence suggests that an individual’s level of religious orthodoxy might now be a more important predictor of party identification than his or her denominational affiliation (Wuthnow 1988; Hunter 1991; Leege and Kellstedt 1993; Kohut et al. 2000; Layman 2001; Leege et al. 2002). Catholics are, again, an excellent case in point. Catholics, in this view, are now divided into a more conservative-orthodox wing, which tends to be most concerned with issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and a liberal-progressive wing, which is concerned with social justice issues. Republicans have attracted orthodox Catholics (along with evangelical Protestants and more conservative mainline Protestants), and Democrats have attracted progressive Catholics (along with most Jews, African American Protestants, liberal mainline Protestants, and seculars) (Kohut et al. 2000). As Geoffrey Layman (2001) adeptly argues, this fault line is an increasingly significant factor in American elections.

Finally, as the 2004 church attendance gap suggests, individuals’ level of religious commitment can be an important predictor of voting behavior, with more committed individuals tending to vote for conservative Republican candidates. Scholars suggest multiple reasons for this. For example, Paul Djupe and Christopher Gilbert (2003) argue that frequent church attenders are exposed to a more regular stream of information (sermons and conversations with fellow attenders) that might make religious political connections salient. It also may be the case that religious commitment is a proxy for belief and affiliation factors in vote choice. As Laura Olson and John Green speculate, “It may be, for instance, that weekly attenders are concentrated in some religious communities and not in others, or it might be that less-frequent attenders are not particularly influenced by the distinctive values of religious communities” (2006, 458).

Clearly, affiliation, belief, and commitment combined help explain patterns of religiously based political behavior. Layman’s (2001) account is particularly convincing, carefully documenting how the orthodox- progressive divide was leveraged by strategic politicians though position-taking on cultural issues and how this gradually reshaped party coalitions.3 For this reason, regardless of candidates’ rhetorical style, Republicans generally enter electoral contests with considerable advantages among orthodox voters. Nevertheless, each of these theories still struggles to account for the dramatic ebb and flow of religious salience from election to election. For example, although belief-oriented divisions were evident in the 2004 election, the election did not represent a simple stepwise increase in the gradual move toward a permanent division between religiously committed and secular Americans. By 2008, the 64-35 split between the most frequent church attenders and seculars had receded to 55-43. Thus, although a persistent religion gap is a significant feature in American politics, we cannot yet explain what divides religious voters from one election to the next. In short, research supports the contention that religion influences how people see the political world, but we do not have a complete understanding of how these connections emerge and recede in different electoral contexts.

To compensate for this shortcoming, many accounts argue that religious cleavages in politics are issue-driven and are therefore transitory and election-specific. There is little doubt that certain issues have the potential to resonate more with specific religious groups (Leege et al. 2002); however, there are several problems with giving high-salience religious issues singular credit for driving voting patterns. First, issue-oriented explanations are often post hoc and, accordingly, have difficulty predicting which issues will matter and when. Second, issue-oriented explanations run the risk of overgeneralizing religious subgroups. Frequent church at- tenders are a diverse bunch. Whereas some church attenders might be particularly concerned about gay marriage and abortion, others might be concerned about entirely different issues, or even endorse pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage positions. Jim Wallis, a progressive pastor, lamented as much during the 2004 presidential campaign, decrying accounts of religious voters as monolithic.4 Of course, frequent church at- tenders did actually vote in a remarkably consistent way. But, as the Wallis example illustrates, it would be a mistake to assume that issues alone were driving this pattern of voting behavior.

Empirical evidence is consistent with the argument that issues are only a part of the story, with 2004 again providing a telling case in point. The 2004 election represents the high-water mark for religious cleavages in electoral politics, and a high-profile exit poll indicating that 22 percent of the public cited “moral values” as the most important electoral issue is often taken as evidence that the religious vote was issue-driven. Even in 2004, however, it is doubtful that religious individuals voted solely on the basis of traditional religious or moral issues. Analyzing independent survey results, D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields (2005) convinc?ingly argue that domestic terrorism and Iraq were considerably more important in the minds of voters than were the moral values issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Although Hillygus and Shields do not examine the independent effect of religiosity on vote choice, the fact that abortion and same-sex marriage had only a modest effect suggests that other factors may be responsible for the religion gap. Daniel Smith, Matthew DeSantis, and Jason Kassel (2006) reach a similar conclusion after examining county-level election returns in same-sex marriage initiative states. Although some counties with high concentrations of evangelicals tended to support George W. Bush at higher than expected levels, the evidence indicates that same-sex marriage did not drive turnout among religious voters.

My own analyses are consistent with the argument that salient cultural issues did not drive the 2004 religion gap. I examined a large survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shortly before the 2004 election (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004)5 to assess whether the significant gap between frequent and infrequent church attenders persisted, even when I had statistically controlled for factors such as the importance of same-sex marriage, abortion, and moral values. Although I found some evidence that these factors were predictive of voting behavior, it is clear that cultural issues tell only part of the story. Even when the analysis accounted for a long list of cultural issues,6 frequent church attenders were still considerably more supportive of Bush than secularly inclined voters. In other words, even taking the salience of cultural issues into consideration, a large gulf still persisted between frequent and infrequent church attenders. In fact, even in the eleven states with a same-sex marriage ballot initiative, only 23 percent of the sample knew that there was a same-sex marriage initiative on the ballot, and frequent church at- tenders were no more likely to know about the initiative than infrequent attenders. This suggests that even in the most moral values-saturated environment possible, moral issues alone were probably not driving a wedge between religious and secular voters.7 All this indicates that salient moral values issues were not driving the religion gap in 2004, and other forces—including rhetorical expressions of emotion and identity—may be responsible for pushing religious and secular Americans in different directions.

Although the religion and politics literature provides a convincing account of many of the factors involved in shaping the patterns of religious voting behavior, we still have much to learn about how the role of reli?gion can change dramatically from one election to the next and whether these changes are rhetorically instigated.8 One key contribution of the literature previously discussed is the consensus that multiple conceptualizations of religious orientation are necessary to account for the dynamics of American political behavior. Denominational affiliation, orthodoxy, level of commitment, and other types of orientations can all plausibly factor into voters’ decision calculus, given the right electoral circumstances. It stands to reason that variations in how candidates strategically employ religious rhetoric to leverage these varied orientations may help explain the fluctuating role of religion in American elections.9

 
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