The rhetorical construction of religious constituencies

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

—President John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inaugural Address

Religious rhetoric is a defining feature of the American political campaign. Although the contours of the genre have changed over time, it contains two enduring elements that make it well suited to be a highly persuasive tool given the unique American religious landscape. Specifically, the genre is defined by the rhetorical expression of politically salient collective identities and the use of highly emotive rhetorical cues. By rhetorically leveraging emotions and identity, political elites have thus used—and will continue to use—this genre to their electoral advantage. The evidence is clear that, for vast segments of the American public, religious rhetoric is a desirable, if not necessary, component of a candidate’s public self-presentation. Nevertheless, the prevalence of this genre in the public sphere produces crosscutting effects on the ability of candidates to deliver adequate representation to all constituents and on the meaning of an inclusive and tolerant democracy.

In this chapter, I explore the interconnections among religious persuasion, representation, and culture. The evidence suggests that to fully understand the politics of religious appeals we need to fundamentally retheorize the nature of religious constituencies. Religious rhetoric should be thought of less in terms of appealing to stable preexisting religious groups and more in terms of rhetorically activating latent religious identities. Of particular importance is the activation of an American civil religion identity. Even though the tenets of civil religion have a broad adherence in the American public, civil religion is also quite exclusive, putting forward an explicitly religious conception of American national identity. Moreover, a candidate’s invoking American civil religion recasts the relationship between the representative and voter, bringing symbolic representational demands to bear on the political process. In the end, separation of church and state may ultimately be a misnomer in American electoral politics, in that religious rhetoric is responsible for actively creating religious constituencies that can drive election results.

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