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



In spring 2011, I attended a speech by Representative Keith Ellison (D- Minn.) at an interfaith dialogue at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Ellison’s talk occurred just a few weeks after he had taken part in controversial congressional subcommittee hearings that had been called to investigate “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” As the first Muslim American elected to Congress, Ellison expressed regret over the “premise of the hearings.” His comments at the interfaith event, however, carried a tenor far different from the sectarian pitch that had surrounded much of the hearings. Reflecting on the founding of the nation, Ellison remarked, “We the people, create our nation to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty. People make a mistake when they say that when these words were written they were not true. I say they weren’t true yet. I say they were our aspiration. An America to be hoped for and to be worked for. An America that has to be built and is being built by all of us. I look at these words, and I reflect upon them, and I think about them as America’s prayer.”

Ellison’s remarks go further than simply calling for religious tolerance and putting aside religious differences by suggesting that there is something sacred within American political institutions. The Constitution is to be interpreted not just as a blueprint for democracy but as a prayer for the American people. This prayer, as Ellison characterized it, does not favor any particular denomination or sect. Rather, Ellison’s speech promoted a spiritualized understanding of American political institutions and culture—an understanding that could resonate across denominational divides. In short, Ellison’s reading conceived of the Constitution as a religious document by invoking prayer in a universalistic manner.

As I listened to Ellison’s remarks, it was clear that this characterization of American politics struck a chord with the vast majority of the audience at a Lutheran-affiliated liberal arts college. Ellison found, in this civil religion understanding of the U.S. Constitution, a point of commonality that appeared to be both deeply heartfelt by the audience and inclusive

ix enough to be met with near-universal approval from a religiously diverse crowd. But, even though most of the audience was moved, the response was not entirely uniform. Illustrating the complex array of emotions engendered by religious language, several comments by audience members during the question-and-answer period revealed a degree of discomfort with the melding of American national identity and faith, no matter how inclusive that faith might be.

The phrase “America’s prayer” provides a good introduction to the topic of religious rhetoric. Displays of faith have long been intertwined with political commitments, and they are almost always met with a complex and varied reaction from the American public. Ellison’s remarks, which downplay denominational divides to assert a shared American faith, represent an important trajectory in American political culture— one that is comfortable with religious pluralism and seeks to find points of shared spirituality between faiths. Indeed, seeking religious common ground is not just undertaken in the name of cooperation but is ultimately part of what it means to be an American. Of course, not all religious rhetoric casts aside differences. Like much of the commentary surrounding the Muslim community hearings, religious rhetoric is often used to call attention to differences, not find points of agreement. Each of these modes of public religious discourse has important precedents in American politics, and each carries the potential to shape American democracy in important ways.

My goal in writing this book is to better understand the dynamics of religious political rhetoric. The regular melding of religious displays and political speech led me to seek a framework to better understand how religious language is invoked in the public square and how it influences American public opinion and culture. Even though religious rhetoric has long been a source of scholarly interest, we actually know very little about the effects this rhetoric has on the mass public. Do religious appeals work? Do they help candidates garner favor with the American public? Moreover, how do these appeals influence the political culture at large? Is religious rhetoric consistent with a political culture that welcomes religious difference and encourages pluralism, or is religion more often used to divide and marginalize?

Adequately addressing these questions requires both an appreciation of the rich tapestry of ways in which religious rhetoric is used and a nuanced understanding of how citizens process information about the political world. To this end, I have marshaled a range of qualitative evi?dence on religious political rhetoric to develop an analytic framework and then used this framework to quantitatively test a series of predictions about the impact of religious rhetoric on voters in contemporary campaign environments. In Religious Rhetoric and American Politics, I begin by looking at the use of religious rhetoric in American political history, concluding that the genre can best be understood in terms of how it evokes identity, as well as its emotive force. Using this framework for guidance, I then use a quantitative content analysis to address the implications of religious identity and emotive religious rhetoric in American presidential campaigns. Finally, building on the findings from the content analysis, I use surveys and experiments to uncover the effects of identity and emotive rhetoric on the American public mind.

Although this degree of methodological pluralism is unusual, the underlying logic of this approach should allow readers to both appreciate the complexity of religious rhetoric in American politics and make sense of its nuanced effects on a religiously diverse public. For the ease of presentation, I rely on relatively simple figures and graphs to illustrate the main characteristics of religious rhetoric and how these appeals impact the mass public. Interested readers can find more comprehensive statistical analyses and methodological details in the online appendix, available at The result, I hope, is an approachable and informative window onto how candidates use religious language and how it influences American politics and political culture. The effect of religious rhetoric depends largely on how it activates emotions and a sense of shared identity in the public. Nevertheless, religious political rhetoric is received in varied ways depending on individuals’ religious predispositions—what sounds like a unifying message to some is often marginalizing for others. As this book will make clear, religious rhetoric thus contains the germs of both political unity and religious fragmentation.

This book owes much to the assistance, patience, and goodwill of countless friends and colleagues. From start to finish, no one has been more of a source of scholarly wisdom and genuine inspiration than James Druckman. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that without Jamie’s generosity, encouragement, and razor-sharp insight, this project would have never happened. Likewise, conversations with John Sullivan, Wendy Rahn, and Chris Federico all helped give rise to this book, and they continued to lend their valuable judgment and expertise as the project developed. Moreover, it is hard for me to imagine writing this book without the broad network of support I found at the University of Minnesota. In particular, Paul Goren provided tremendous feedback on countless aspects of this project, encouraging me to think about how the present research speaks to our understanding of political behavior more broadly, greatly improving the book as a result. James Farr helped me think about how the use of religious rhetoric throughout history connects to present- day patterns and trends. John Freeman, Ben Ansell, Mark Snyder, Joanne Miller, Logan Dancey, Steve Hanson, and Paul Soper all helped me work through important methodological and substantive issues. Countless other faculty and graduate students at the University of Minnesota provided insights and assistance far too vast to enumerate in full.

My gratitude extends to many beyond the University of Minnesota. I am grateful to faculty in the political science department at St. Olaf College, who offered valuable feedback on the book-in-progress at every turn. In particular, Dan Hofrenning and Douglas Casson provided valuable insights into the nature of American civil religion. I also thank faculty in the political science department at the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater, who have provided regular constructive feedback. Samantha Luks at Polimetrix provided considerable assistance in implementing the survey used in chapter 6. I am also grateful to many others who have taken the time to read and offer valuable comments on this work at different stages, especially Booth Fowler, Laura Stoker, Paul Djupe, Lydia Pfotenhauer, Elaine Atcheson, Katie Chapp, and Greg Vonnahme. Alex Fietzer, Caleb Eboch, and Patrick Reinikainen all provided substantial content analysis assistance. David Bierly, Ryan Sommers, Steve Chappell, and Amanda Persak all assisted with data collection efforts. At every stage, the generosity of others has enabled this project to go forward, and I thank you all.

This research would not have been possible without support from a wide range of institutions. I received a Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Graduate School (2007-2008) and research grants from University of Minnesota Minor in Political Psychology in 2005 and 2006. A generous Faculty Development grant from St. Olaf College allowed me to conduct much of the original survey research presented in chapter 6. I am also grateful to the College of Letters and Sciences and Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for their publication support. In addition to data I compiled myself, the research presented herein relies heavily on American National Election Study data, Pew Research Center data, the Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse, and the Stanford Political Communication Laboratory. I am indebted to the efforts of others in gathering and compiling these data and making them publicly available.

I feel very privileged to have this book published with Cornell University Press, and I am grateful to all those who have had a hand in helping this book take shape. In particular, Michael McGandy has been a tremendous source of constructive feedback, encouragement, and collegiality from start to finish. I am also grateful for the efforts of the anonymous reviewers Michael identified. Their careful reading and insights have helped produce a much better book.

Above all else, I thank my family. My parents, Katie and Terry, and brother, TJ, have always encouraged me, and they have always been a source of inspiration. This book is dedicated to my wife, Jolene, and my daughter, Cecilia. Before writing, I would not have guessed that the greatest challenges to producing a book are often the emotional ones: coping with frustrations, setbacks, and long hours in front of a computer. Jolene and Ceci are always there for me, and I feel truly blessed.

religious rhetoric and American politics

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