Religious Rhetoric and Candidate Evaluation

The results presented in this chapter provide evidence of how religious rhetoric influences voters’ decision calculus, and in doing so, they raise a series of important questions about how political representation is understood within the context of an ostensibly secular democratic state. The data indicate that religious rhetoric plays an important role in candidate evaluation; however, it generally does so indirectly. Emotive and identity rhetoric can activate very specific dimensions of individual religiosity. Civil religion identity tends to increase the extent to which individuals use religious commitment as a basis for candidate evaluation, but it tends to decrease the effects of orthodoxy on candidate evaluation. In the case of Christian subgroup rhetoric, the opposite pattern holds. Christian group references tend to make those who are religiously committed, across religious group affiliations, evaluate a candidate less favorably. These results make intuitive sense. Language intended to excite religious predispositions in a nonsectarian manner affects candidate evaluations for those most committed to religion—across denominations and across levels of orthodoxy. On the other hand, when the rhetoric cues specific Christian denominations, this pattern reverses itself.

Likewise, the emotive character of a campaign is important to understanding how voters evaluate candidates. Enthusiastic religious rhetoric activates religious evaluative criteria. This finding makes sense, given what is known about the nature of emotions and political decision making. Enthusiastic individuals have little incentive to cast off their predispositions and engage in the effort of an information search. When a candidate sends an enthusiasm-inducing religious message, this signals both that the candidate shares a common religious group orientation and that this common orientation is an adequate basis for political preference formation. In contrast, when a candidate uses a high degree of angry rhetorical cues, this induces negative feelings toward that candidate, but it does not make religion salient. Thus, controlling for the strategically advantageous use of references to the opponent, anger-inducing religious rhetoric is an ill-advised campaign strategy.

These findings indicate that the religious dynamics of a campaign matters, but they also stress the need for a nuanced understanding of religious rhetoric. Indeed, when I replicated these analyses for frequency of religious word use, I found that the frequency of religious words used in a campaign alone does not predict opinion change, either directly or indirectly. When we try to explain how religious rhetoric works, then, it is important to begin with the theoretical basis for preference formation. Identity priming and emotion are two such mechanisms. These mechanisms make sense in terms of what we know about the psychology of religion: it is intertwined with an individual’s identity, and it has the potential to be a tremendously emotional experience.

At one level, the findings in this chapter speak to the utility of religious rhetoric as a campaign strategy, and from this perspective we have reached several definitive conclusions. At the same time, these results ask as many questions as they answer. Insofar as religious identity becomes the basis for vote choice, it raises the question of whether this rhetorically primed constituency has expectations about political leadership. In other words, religious voting complicates the representative task considerably—particularly in a democracy characterized by a wall of separation between church and state. In the next chapter, I turn to this question, asking how religious rhetoric impacts the representational dynamics of American politics.

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