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


Understanding When Religion Becomes a Factor

If issues do not explain the varying influence of religious factors from one election to the next, then what does? The dual theories of identity priming and emotive communication provide a powerful explanation. The key observation here is that the two defining features of religious rhetoric— emotion and identity—have an important parallel in the psychology of persuasion. Neither of these mechanisms requires fundamentally retheorizing the enduring nature of religious predispositions or insisting that religious attachments are in some way fickle. Rather, identity and emotion-based models of persuasion imply that religious attachments are deep and enduring, but that campaign rhetoric is capable of making latent religiosity salient to the task of political evaluation. Religious rhetoric can prime religious considerations both by increasing the weight given to religious identity in political evaluation and by inducing emotions relevant to political judgment, causing individuals to rely to a greater or lesser extent on religious predispositions.

Individuals can hold multiple (and potentially crosscutting) identities at any given time, and the activation of these identities depends largely on context (Hogg 2006; see also Roccas and Brewer 2002). For example, imagine a Catholic woman, deeply attached to her local parish. She sends checks to Focus on the Family and generally considers herself an orthodox Christian. Although these social groups might be mutually reinforcing, there may be cases in which these identities have crosscutting, opposing political implications. If a fellow member of her local parish is running for a seat on the school board and his central campaign issue is the free distribution of contraceptives in schools, we can certainly imagine a tension between the woman’s parish-based bond to the candidate and her attachment to a broader national movement. The question becomes: Which of these identities will have the most electoral pull? Ultimately, there is no right answer to this question. Political judgment depends on which identity is effectively primed, or made cognitively accessible and germane to the task of political evaluation.10

All this suggests that any prediction about the religious basis of voting behavior needs to grapple with precisely which identities are being primed in a given electoral context. In the previous chapters, I suggest three main ways in which religious identities are invoked: civil religion identity appeals, subgroup identity appeals, and appeals to a culture war. Recall that, of these three, civil religion appeals are clearly the most common in presidential election campaigns. As an example of how civil religion appeals work, consider Bob Dole’s 1996 argument that a “moral understanding is the source of our certainty. Drug use is wrong because it destroys individual character and responsibility. It is wrong because it leaves us useless to God and our neighbor” (September 18, 1996, West Hills, CA, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse; italics added). Although he never explicitly mentions a group, Dole is implying a shared sense of group identity by his use of “us” and “our.” Moreover, this identity is connected to a shared religious and moral ethos that has policy implications (antidrug), lifestyle implications (we must make ourselves useful to the community), and theological implications (God exists). To use drugs is not just to commit a crime but also to violate a certain moral and religious commitment that all Americans have with God.

Although it is clear that Dole was appealing to some social group, it is less clear how to empirically identify the members of this group. Theoretically, civil religion rhetoric has its greatest appeal among those who feel a deep sense of attachment to a spiritualized understanding of America and who hold a sense of shared fate with other Americans who belong to this community. Dole’s rhetoric is noteworthy for its lack of sectarian content. It is likely that appeals such as this have persuasive force among the religiously committed generally rather than to a specific religious tradition.

The second class of identity is distinct subgroup identities such as Christian or Baptist. Priming religious identity in the narrower sense has advantages in its own right. From a psychological perspective, this might mean rhetorically inducing a sense of “positive distinctiveness” by distinguishing a particular religious group identity from a superordinate identity category. As Marilynn Brewer summarizes, “Particularly for individuals who are vested in a single group identity, the threat of lost distinctiveness may override the pursuit of superordinate goals” (1999, 437). In addition to being a psychologically viable option, priming more specific religious identities might have distinct political advantages. Subgroup loyalties could be experienced more intensely than civil religion identity, and these groups might have built-in networks for disseminating political information. In addition, particular ingroup identities may lend themselves more readily to concrete political issue positions, such as antideath penalty or anti-abortion.

Finally, like subgroup appeals, culture wars rhetoric should theoretically appeal to more narrowly defined religious groups—self-identified religious progressives and the religiously orthodox. But culture wars rhetoric takes a very different path than subgroup appeals to make these identities salient; it emphasizes outgroups and religious conflicts. Psychologists have long questioned whether outgroup differentiation is a critical component of ingroup attachment (Brewer 1999), and culture wars rhetoric represents an important test case of this debate. If the rhetoric of a religious war in American politics is an effective tool for the activation of strong ingroup favoritism, then a rhetorical call to arms could be more persuasive than simple subgroup appeals.

Evidence thus indicates that civil religion, subgroup, and culture wars appeals activate different identities in the mass public. And research has indicated that rhetoric can influence the religious patterns of political behavior. For example, Leege and colleagues (2002) argue that culturally charged messages influence different segments of the electorate. But, rather than arguing that religious rhetoric activates different segments of the electorate, I contend that religious rhetoric works by activating different parts of the individual. Any single individual can simultaneously hold multiple religious identities (as well as numerous secular identities), any of which can become prominent in a given situation. The real question is: How does political rhetoric prime these latent group attachments and make them germane to vote choice?

Accordingly, the relationship between religious rhetoric and identity- based voting should theoretically follow a distinct pattern. First, references to civil religion identity should prime very general religious considerations across denominational divides and other religious subgroups. In contrast, we expect more tailored references to specific subgroups to have stronger effects, limited to the specific ingroup to which candidates appeal. Although I expect this basic process to hold across a number of denominational identities (e.g., frequent references to Southern Baptists should make individuals’ own Southern Baptist identity salient), there is insufficient data to test this hypothesis across all elections. Thus, I have used a measure of orthodoxy, a concept that is theoretically related to a sense of religious exclusivity (Iannaccone 1997; Smith 1998). Calling specific group-based distinctions to mind activates this evaluative dimension.11 Culture wars appeals are also expected to prime the orthodox- progressive scale as an evaluative criterion (with orthodox individuals responding more favorably to culture wars rhetoric). But my expectations about the effects of culture wars rhetoric are somewhat mixed. It is unclear whether outgroup differentiation is the best strategy to form ingroup cohesion. Moreover, because candidates often employ surrogates to serve as campaign “attack dogs,” I am not as confident that the culture wars measure would adequately capture the overall tenor of the campaign.

Like religious identities, different emotive cues will likely have varied consequences on how positively or negatively individuals evaluate candidates and even on the extent to which an individual’s own religious predispositions become germane to political evaluation. All else being equal, positive emotive rhetoric has a positive impact on overall judgment, whereas candidates who are, on the balance, more negative, are evaluated less favorably. At the same time, different emotions are also linked to different processing styles, and because the emotive rhetoric in our sample is explicitly religious in nature, it follows that it may activate religious evaluative criteria in voters for use in political judgment. In short, I expect that both anger and enthusiasm cues should activate religious commitment as a basis for a favorable candidate evaluation. In very different ways, both of these emotional states tend to increase people’s reliance on standing predispositions, including religiosity. For example, when in 2000 Bush promised to set “a positive, optimistic tone” and linked this message of enthusiasm with taking an oath “on the Bible” and the honoring the integrity of the office “so help me God” (August 1, 2000, Harrisburg, PA, FDCH Political Transcripts), he was communicating to voters that they should bring religious standards to bear on his candidacy. By inducing enthusiasm, Bush was telling the public that there was no need to look beyond religious heuristics as the basis of how to vote.

Anxiety, in contrast, is related to cognitive evaluative strategies and political behaviors such as increased information search. Although the available data do not provide a direct test of whether anxiety-inducing religious rhetoric had these predicted effects, I expect that, unlike anger and enthusiasm, anxiety cues would not activate standing religious predispositions as a basis for candidate evaluation.

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