Religious Rhetoric and Political Persuasion

It is no accident that religious rhetoric is such a robust feature of American election campaigns. In American politics, religious rhetoric provides a unique solution to the convergence of three challenges faced by candidates. That is, in a winner-take-all electoral system, candidates need to develop a rhetorical style with broad appeal to a religiously diverse constituency that leverages the psychological underpinnings of persuasion. Religious rhetoric, as it has evolved across American history, sits comfortably at the intersection of all these forces.

Of particular importance is the civil religion tradition, which is used to activate a spiritualized sense of collective identity in the American public. As demonstrated in chapter 6, civil religion finds broad identification in the American public, and candidate rhetoric routinely makes this identity electorally salient. It should not be lost on us that civil religion identity gains its power from unique religious makeup of America. In a marketplace of competing religious traditions, civil religion identity attempts to unify an otherwise diverse set of religious affiliations and orientations. Along these lines, however, civil religion rhetoric is not the only choice for candidates. In different electoral environments, candidates have sought to make denominational identities salient and even to activate a schism between orthodox and progressive religious factions.

The key observation here is that religious constituencies are not permanent facts in American elections, defined by bright lines and intractable group allegiances. Rather, individuals have numerous and crosscutting religious identities, and religious political rhetoric works by strategically making these identities politically salient. Scholars of electoral behavior have long understood that individuals hold an array of competing considerations on matters of foreign and domestic policy, and which considerations are brought to the forefront of political evaluation has much to do with how skilled politicians make their case. The process of religious identity priming follows a similar course. To fully understand the role of religion in voting, we should not ask just how campaigns activate religious groups in the electorate but also how campaigns activate different religious identities in the individual.

This has important implications for understanding and interpreting elections. It cautions us not to perceive the religious vote as monolithic but, rather, as a diverse group with multiple interests and desires. It also informs our understanding of candidate strategy. Previous research has found substantial evidence that candidates craft their rhetoric to strategically prime the issues on which they will be favorably evaluated (Jacobs and Shapiro 1994). The present research adds to this understanding of campaign dynamics by showing that candidates also actively construct a common group identity with voters in the electorate. This social group identity need not be formed around any particular issue in the way that farmers might unite around agriculture subsidy policies or union members might unite around changes in labor law. Identity itself can be grounds for persuasion—it need not have a substantive basis in political issues.

This ultimately may be the best explanation for the difference in the religious vote from 2004 to 2008. George W. Bush made significant gains with religiously committed voters during the course of the 2004 election, accentuating the already sizable religion gap enjoyed by Republican candidates. Bush’s rhetoric deserves the credit for this. His religious self-presentation was not sectarian but, rather, cast American greatness in religious terms, thus appealing to the identities of a broad array of voters. Although John McCain used religious rhetoric, he did not do so in a manner consistent with the activation of religious identity. In contrast, Obama deftly primed civil religion identity, lamenting the loss of U.S. status in the world order while, at the same time, offering a promise of American greatness. Even though McCain still enjoyed an advantage among religious voters, Obama’s rhetorical style was probably responsible for closing the large gap that had been present four years earlier.

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