Civil religion identity and the task of political representation

It’s not about the Republicans sending hecklers to my rally. It’s about Jerry Falwell picking the next justices of the Supreme Court. And this election is about leadership. It’s about what we expect a president to do when he represents American values and dreams.

—Vice President Walter Mondale, 1984

Hanna Pitkin defines to represent as to “make present again.” In American politics, elected representatives go about the task of making their constituencies present again in varied and complex ways. A representative might, for example, deliver what Pitkin calls “substantive representation,” advocating on behalf of policies that his or her constituency desires. A representative might also deliver “descriptive representation” by, essentially, looking like his or her own constituency. Or representation can be symbolic, centered on a common identification between rulers and the ruled—what Pitkin calls an “alignment of wills” (1967, 108).

When analyzing the relationship between an elected leader and a religious constituency, we often ignore important symbolic aspects of representation. Instead, scholars, politicians, and pundits alike are often quick to focus on substantive aspects of representation. For example, when Bush won the 2004 election, the victory was often taken to suggest a substantive policy mandate focused on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Likewise, the media are often mesmerized by descriptive accounts of religious representation. When Sonya Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court, the national news media devoted significant attention to the fact that six of the nine Justices would be Catholic, asking how the descriptive composition of the Court might affect judicial decision making.

These substantive and descriptive accounts of representation have led to a number of important insights about the role of religion in American politics.1 But, as we have seen in previous chapters, religious communication in American campaigns is not generally remarkable in its substantive issue content. Rather, religious rhetoric is a genre that is best characterized by the way in which candidates invoke identity and emotion; it is focused more on aligning the hearts and minds of candidate and constituent than on asserting a religious policy platform. Voters swayed by religious appeals may ultimately be more interested in a candidate’s identity and symbolic vision of the American state than in any particular policy prescription. When Walter Mondale, in the speech quoted here, contrasted Jerry Falwell with American values and dreams, he wasn’t persuading via a substantive policy platform but was, instead, locating a point of common identification with the audience and asking voters to evaluate his candidacy by thinking about the type of leadership he offered.

To fully understand the role of religion in the dynamics of political representation, it is thus important to know whether voters’ expectations are primarily substantive or symbolic. Unfortunately, relatively little research has examined what citizens’ expectations of government actually are when they cast a ballot based on a candidate’s religious selfpresentation. Do voters, swayed by a candidate’s religious appeals, expect a certain set of policies or are their desires more closely related to specific symbolic concerns? Moreover, the American public is not of one mind when it comes to religion, and many voters will find little to agree with in religious rhetoric. Given that some religious rhetoric contains a distinctly exclusivist element, it follows that for some voters a religious representational style does little to make them feel “present again.” Indeed, religious rhetoric may leave some voters feeling alienated from the political system altogether.

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