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Home arrow Religion arrow Religious Rhetoric and American Politics: The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns
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The Centrality of Civil Religion Identity

Understanding the American religious landscape requires grappling with the multiple and crosscutting religious identities that coexist in the American public. For example, culture war theorists have argued that many American denominations are divided within by warring orthodox and progressive factions. Civil religion theorists have a different point of emphasis, arguing that common spiritual denominators unite individuals across religious traditions, transcend multiple traditions to see God at work in American democracy, and serve as a cultural glue and point of political unity.2 Although a definite tension exists between the culture war and civil religion perspectives, the evidence indicates that no one viewpoint is descriptively right or wrong. Instead, different religious orientations—for example, as a Baptist, a Protestant, an orthodox Christian, or a member of the American civil religion—can all coexist as latent religious identities in a single individual, and these identities are made politically salient through the use of religious political rhetoric.

No one religious identity tells the complete story of American political life and culture, but an identification with American civil religion clearly is a prominent part of the story. The rhetoric of American civil religion— with its constituent emotive and identity-laden elements—has been a dominant mode of public religious expression for hundreds of years. For political elites, this rhetorical choice makes strategic sense. America is characterized by both high rates of religious adherence and a high degree of religious pluralism. Civil religion rhetoric theoretically allows elites to make effective appeals to a broad and diverse constituency.

This said, much remains to be learned about American civil religion and its effects. First, it is important to know something about the citizens for whom this genre has its greatest appeal. Unlike denominational or ideological orientations, identity with the American civil religion remains a poorly understood concept, in part because the boundaries of this community are so mutable and amorphous. Consider the example of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, often considered to be an ideal-type example of American civil religion rhetoric. If Kennedy had told American Catholics that they had a special standing in God’s divine plan, Kennedy would have activated denominational affiliations as a basis of political evaluation. But Kennedy said no such thing. Instead, he said that “the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” (January 20, 1961, Inaugural Address, American Presidency Project). It is important to understand which religious identity, if any, Kennedy’s rhetorical move made salient. Did voters find in this statement a point of common identification with Kennedy? If so, for most voters it was certainly not a point of common identification as a Catholic, or as any other denomination for that matter. And given the overwhelming message of quasi-religious unity, it is unlikely that this statement made the orthodox-progressive divide salient. Instead, the likely point of common identification was a spiritually infused understanding of nation. All Americans are, in Kennedy’s rhetorical formulation, united as recipients of God’s special favor and connected to the same revolutionary point of origin.

Whereas most previous research conceptualizes American civil religion as a type of political rhetoric (Hart 2005), the theory of civil religion identity priming indicates that appeals such as Kennedy’s should have an important analog in the American public mind. Relatively little research, however, has treated civil religion as an individual religious orientation. One important exception to this gap in the literature is a series of papers authored by Ronald Wimberley and colleagues in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Wimberley 1979, 1980; Wimberley and Christenson 1980, 1981). Like the present work, Wimberley conceptualizes civil religion as an individual orientation that can be activated by campaign communication. For example, Richard Nixon effectively projected civil religious imagery in the 1972 presidential campaign and also received a disproportionate share of the civil religion vote (Wimberley 1980). Wimberley (1979) also finds strong evidence that civil religion is distinct from other political and religious constructs.3 His findings suggest that a sizable portion of the American public identifies with the basic tenets of American civil religion, and that these individuals respond to cues from officeholders. This interplay has important consequences for understanding the role of religion in political representation and for understanding the contours of political culture more generally.

Incorporating Wimberley’s research with research on the nature of social identities, I define civil religion identity as a self-awareness of membership in the civil religion tradition and a sense of attachment to this tradition.4 Civil religion identifiers see themselves as part of a nondenominational religious tradition, and they draw on this group membership to define their social selves. Membership accords a certain positive distinctiveness, drawn from the sense that God has blessed their group—the American nation—and afforded it special privileges and responsibilities.

Examining civil religion identity in the American public presents several challenges. The civil religion is, in many ways, a social group in the same way that Christian religion is a social group. It has members who adhere to a basic belief structure and who draw meaning from attachment to the group. But civil religion lacks an institutional structure (and even a formal name) that many denominations and traditions have. Accordingly, it is challenging to design survey items that capture the extent to which people see themselves as objective members of this group. To address these challenges, I began with the battery of civil religion questions used by Ronald Wimberley and James Christenson (1981) and Sergei Flere and Miran Lavric (2007) and then modified the items to incorporate aspects of social identity, such as a sense of shared fate and group attachment. For example, respondents were asked to agree or disagree that “As Americans, we are blessed with special opportunities.” Using the we voice taps into the idea of shared responsibility. Likewise, individuals were asked if they agreed that “America, as a nation, holds a special higher power,” an item again designed to measure whether people draw meaning from this group attachment. In addition, consistent with the notion that social identities are often characterized by a particular worldview (Abdelal et al. 2006), individuals were asked several belief- oriented items, such as “The U.S. Constitution is a holy document.” Thus, I operationalized civil religion identity as including a group attachment component, as well as beliefs that accord America and Americans a sacred place in the world order.

In this chapter, I investigate the properties of civil religion identity and how individuals who scored high on a civil religion identity (CRI) scale respond to religious cues in two studies. Most evidence comes from the National Civil Religion Identity Study, conducted in summer 2010, in which four hundred adults were surveyed to assess (1) the extent to which they identified as a member of the American civil religion and (2) how they evaluated political candidates. This study provides critical evidence about how an identification with American civil religion can inform our understanding of political representation. In addition, this study contains a question-order experiment, whereby some respondents were randomly selected to respond to political items immediately following a religious question battery, with the expectation that religious cues would prime a different basis of candidate evaluation. The second study, conducted on four hundred undergraduate college students in fall 2008, looks more directly at how rhetoric primes different evaluative criteria as a basis of vote choice. After answering a series of questions about politics and religion, students were asked to evaluate a candidate’s web page which had been specifically altered to prime certain religious evaluative criteria. Each of these studies is described more completely in this chapter and in the online appendix (http://facstaff.uww.edu/chappc/).

 
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