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The Consequences of Religious Rhetoric

It is clear that political, religious, and psychological factors combine to make religious rhetoric an optimal strategy for ambitious public elites, but in this book I am not concerned just with why various modes of religious communication are employed but also with the consequences of religious rhetoric in the public sphere. As figure 1.1 illustrates, three consequences of religious rhetoric are of particular interest: its impact on electoral outcomes, the contours of political community, and the dynamics of political representation.

First and foremost, religious appeals are common because they work. In this book, I provide evidence that religious rhetoric is used to activate religious identities as a basis of candidate evaluation and to elevate the emotive tone of campaigns. But the connection between rhetoric and voting behavior is complex and sometimes counterintuitive. For example, although it is often suggested that Bush garnered favor among religious constituencies because of his stance on issues such as same-sex marriage, in chapters 5 and 6 I provide evidence that, instead, Bush’s success in 2004 had to do with his effective use of civil religion appeals, causing much of the electorate to evaluate him on his ability to provide moral leadership for the nation. These patterns of voting behavior were ultimately lodged in a sense of shared religious identity with Bush—not any particular affinity with his stance on the so-called cultural issues. In this way, scholars and pundits bemoaning the rise of a culture war have missed a critical component of religious rhetoric. What made Bush effective with religious audiences (at least through the 2004 campaign) was his ability to solidify the support of a rather diverse group of believers rather than the use of religious rhetoric calling attention to cultural differences.

If citizens are voting for candidates based on a shared religious identity and emotional arousal, this raises a corresponding set of questions about how religious rhetoric influences American political culture. That is, if religious identity is part and parcel of political identity, then religion may be playing a role in who is and who is not included in particular visions of the American political community. Religious rhetoric sets the tone for political debate and discussion, and whether it is conducted in a spirit of cohesion or competition, optimism or anger. Thus, candidates’ religious discourse is at the heart of questions of inclusion and exclusion in the political community.

Perhaps even more critically, insofar as religious communication influences the voting behavior of the mass public, it is also influencing the representational activities of leaders, guiding how they govern based on the substantive and symbolic demands of various religious constituencies. In a country premised on an ostensible wall of separation between church and state, it is important to explore what consequences free religious expression has on promoting a religious mandate for officeholders, once elected. If religious identities are able to sway elections, how are officeholders to govern a constituency that is religiously diverse?

Understanding the dynamics between would-be representatives and the governed ultimately requires a deeper theoretical elaboration of the recipients of religious messages—the voters. Rather than treating the religious vote as monolithic and static, it is more appropriate to think of the numerous and varied religious identities that could potentially be activated by candidate rhetoric. Although it is common to think about direct appeals to different denominations or to the religiously progressive and orthodox, we need to take stock of an additional politically salient religious identity, informed by the importance of civil religion rhetoric in American politics. Specifically, I articulate the concept of a civil religion identity, arguing that identification with this nondenominational American spiritual community is key to understanding the dynamics of political representation in America. Civil religion identifiers hold a deep sense of attachment to an explicitly spiritualized understanding of America. For civil religion identifiers, the United States—vested with a sacred sense of purpose in the world order—is as much a religious community as a political entity. As the psychological analog to civil religion rhetoric, civil religion identity provides the key to understanding how commonplace religious rhetoric can turn the attention of voters to religious evaluative criteria. Many Americans strongly identify with the basic tenets of American civil religion, and in fact for many a latent attachment to this quasireligious identity is a foundational component of their political DNA. The evidence indicates that civil religion voters are not motivated by cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, issues which often dominate political debate.8 Instead, civil religion voters are looking for a prototypical leader who offers a representational style consistent with the tenets of American civil religion. In this sense, religious representation may not be a mandate for policy change but, rather, an endorsement of leadership offering a nondenominational spiritualized sense of the place of America in the world order.

This model of religious rhetoric has consequences, not just for our understanding of religion but for how we think about political campaigns and political behavior more generally. Scholars have long questioned whether campaigns can substantively change Americans’ attitudes, especially when the factors that often influence electoral decision making (such as party identification) tend to be stable from election to election. The model I present here suggests that stability and change are not mutually exclusive. Stable predispositions such as religiosity might not fluctuate much in the American public, but campaign rhetoric can certainly play a role in activating these predispositions and making them germane to the task of evaluating candidates. Moreover, campaigns do not merely mobilize fixed constituencies. Instead, who is and is not a member of a particular constituency is itself the product of rhetorical forces. Instead of speaking just about mobilizing constituencies, we also need to think of campaigns as activating different parts of the individual, changing the American consciousness about group membership and group values, and making different identities politically salient. Even though there is no formal membership in the civil religion community, civil religion is something that is very real to many Americans. Civil religion exists as an identity that is itself actively reified through political rhetoric and made salient to the electoral process.

 
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