From Persuasion to Representation

After the election is over, the active yoking of religion to politics in political campaigns leaves an indelible imprint on the American social fabric. When candidates use religious rhetoric to actively promote civil religion identity as a basis of vote choice, the effect is that many voters understand political leadership in symbolic terms. Given the right rhetorical cues, electoral behavior becomes more about a candidate’s image of moral character and less about substantive issues. This is consistent with Pitkin’s (1967) understanding of symbolic representation, in which political elites are conceived of as active symbol-makers rather than passive agents who simply stand for their constituents. Pitkin has serious concerns about this representational style, writing that symbolic representation is not “merely ritual activity. Rather, it is a kind of activity to foster belief, loyalty, satisfaction with their leaders, among the people. . . . Since there can be no rational justification of the symbolic representative’s position as leader, the emphasis (as with symbols) must fall on the nonrational or emotive elements in belief, and on leadership techniques which exploit such elements” (1967, 107).

Given how subtle and ecumenical religious rhetoric often is in practice, “exploit” may be too strong of a word to describe most candidates’ use of rhetorical style. Moreover, although religious rhetoric can shift vote choice, the evidence is clear that, even in religiously charged environments, many other factors (e.g., party identification) remain important. Nevertheless, Pitkin’s analysis directs our attention to the normatively problematic aspects of a rhetorical style steeped in religious language. Voters may rush to the polling place unaware that their preferred candidate may not ultimately stand for (or even care about) their substantive interests. Religious rhetoric can thus create representational disjointedness, whereby purely symbolic behavior is taken to imply a substantive mandate.

On top of this representational challenge for those who do identify with civil religion is the question of representation for those who do not. As Murray Edelman notes, “Signs evoke an intense response only for those already taking the roles that make them sensitive to the cues that are given off” (1964, 122). The case of civil religion rhetoric is interesting in that it clearly does not stand for everyone but purports to do exactly that. This rhetorical exclusion has observable consequences. Many Americans simply do not feel represented by candidates who employ the language of civil religion identity. This represents a major challenge, especially considering the growing religious diversity of Americans’ religious faiths. As a result, civil religion rhetoric has changed over time to become more inclusive, although exclusion is still a part of the genre. One representational challenge for political elites wielding the language of religious identity is whether the genre can expand once again to offer an even more inclusive definition of the American civil religion.

All this paints a fairly negative portrayal of the representational thrust of American civil religion; however, this portrayal needs to be tempered by our recalling that, theoretically, civil religion exists as a solution to the complex representational challenge posed by a religious constituency that is both diverse and highly committed. For all its potential representational drawbacks, civil religion still stands as a clear alternative to the rhetoric of culture wars, which seeks to actively deepen religious differences. Political observers should take some comfort in the fact that the vast majority of religious rhetoric is not preoccupied with fostering deep societal divisions; in fact, the vast majority of religious language seeks to assert a point of shared collective identity. Moreover, as many have noted, civil religion also plays a role in providing basic political legitimacy for American institutions (Wald and Calhoun Brown 2006). It has helped to rhetorically construct a movement identity for diverse constituencies, as was the case with the Populist movement (Williams and Alexander 1994). And it has been used to direct national attention toward moral shortcomings and to urge reform, as Obama’s campaign rhetoric frequently did.

In sum, civil religion plays a complex representation role, engendering a collective identity in a diverse public while, at the same time, directing the electorate toward largely image-based standards of political evaluation. Multiple layers of evidence indicate that, for all its purported attributes, civil religion rhetoric creates serious representational challenges in a pluralistic religious society. Ultimately, perhaps the genre defies an assessment painted with a broad brush. Civil religion rhetoric plays an important representational role, but in doing so it produces serious normative challenges that must be acknowledged as well.

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