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


Varied Responses to Religious Messages

Just as Christians and non-Christians display markedly different patterns of identification with civil religion identity, these two groups also respond to message cues in different ways. Christians, on the whole, tend to evaluate candidates more favorably when primed with religious cues. Understanding this interaction between religious beliefs (or group membership) and message cues can help us assess the extent to which political leadership is providing symbolic representation for the entire polity or potentially alienating key segments of the electorate.

The first piece of evidence to support this contention comes from an experiment administered to college undergraduates in fall 2008. After filling out a background questionnaire that included the CRI scale,23 individuals read a one-page description of a candidate’s position on “working families,” designed to look like a web page from an actual ongoing campaign.24 The web pages were modified to mimic one of three rhetorical styles: (1) a control condition, containing no religious language; (2) a civil religion condition, containing references to a collective American spirituality; and (3) a subgroup religion condition, containing religious language that singled out specific religious subgroups. For exam?ple, for the civil religion condition the candidate’s issue statement said, “My parents taught me about faith, responsibility, hard work, and the importance of a family to a child’s well-being. Our shared faith in these enduring values is what makes this nation great.” In contrast, for the subgroup religion condition the candidate’s issue statement said, “My parents taught me about faith, responsibility, hard work, and the importance of a family to a child’s well-being. No matter what your racial, ethnic, or religious background—whether you’re a Baptist, a Catholic, a Lutheran, or whatever—these values are enduring.” Like subgroup campaign rhetoric, this condition mentioned other faith traditions but did so in a pluralistic manner. The subgroups were rhetorically cued but not explicitly privileged.25

The results of the experiment are striking. As expected, in the control condition Christian and non-Christian respondents are equally likely to express support for the candidate. As figure 6.4 illustrates, support among non-Christian respondents dropped off considerably in both the civil religion and subgroup religion conditions. Two features of figure 6.4

Vote choice by rhetorical cues and Christian identity

FIGURE 6.4 Vote choice by rhetorical cues and Christian identity

Percentage of individuals likely to vote for a hypothetical candidate (scoring 5 or higher on a 7-point scale) by rhetorical condition and Christian self-identification. The overall decrease in candidate support in both the civil religion and subgroup religion conditions is probably due to this being a student sample. Most notably, Christians and non-Christians have significant differences in their levels of support in the civil religion condition, suggesting its appeal is not universal (p < .05). For a multivariate test of this relationship, see the online appendix, http://

deserve our attention. First, note that, although candidate support for all groups went down considerably in the two religious conditions, this is largely the product of a very secularly inclined student sample. Compared with the results of the National Civil Religion Study, even self-identified Christian respondents in the student sample had markedly lower levels of religious commitment, civil religion identity, and fundamentalist orientations. Thus, the drop in Christian support in both religious conditions should not be taken as a sign that these rhetorical choices are a poor strategy in general.

The more important feature of figure 6.4 is the gap in support between Christian and non-Christian students in the civil religion condition. Strikingly, when the candidate employed the language of civil religion, Christian and non-Christian respondents moved in opposite directions. Civil religion may function as a point of common identification for Christians, but for non-Christians candidate support drops considerably (difference significant at p < .05). This suggests that for non-Christian respondents civil religion may serve to alienate rather than bridge differences—an understandable response, given that civil religion contains an element of exclusivity. It is also worth reiterating that although both the civil religion and subgroup religion conditions used religious language, this treatment was a far cry from the explicitly divisive language of the culture war. Even a rather subtle reference to “shared faith” produces a divergent response between Christian and non-Christian respondents. This suggests that there is a fine line between sufficiently broadening identity-laden appeals to be inclusive and making appeals with the presumption that one does in fact speak for all.

The results from the National Civil Religion Identity Survey make an equally compelling case that Christians and non-Christians respond to civil religion rhetoric in distinctly different ways. This survey contained a rather subtle question-order manipulation, designed to prime subgroup religion and civil religion identities. Before answering questions about the importance of religion, morals, abortion, and so on, participants were asked to respond to one of three question sets: (1) a series of questions about the economy (control), (2) the six-item civil religion question battery, or (3) a series of questions addressing denominational and subgroup religious affiliations. Thus, rather than receiving message primes in the form of candidate rhetoric, individuals were simply exposed to questions designed to tap different aspects of religious identity.

First, it should be noted that, regardless of question-order condition, Christian adherents scored nearly all the religious and quasi-religious issues as significantly more important in evaluating candidates. In addition, in almost every case, the religious prime accentuated this difference between Christians and non-Christians on religious issue importance. In other words, the gap between Christians and non-Christians regarding the relative importance of morals, family values, and religion grew when respondents were primed with questions about civil religion or subgroup religion affiliation. Although these differences did not generally reach standard threshold for statistical significance, one notable exception existed. When no religious prime was present, Christians and non- Christians were about equally likely to say that it is important to elect a candidate who makes them “proud of their country.” However, for survey respondents who received a civil religion cue, the responses from Christians and non-Christians diverged significantly. Christian respondents in this condition tended to strongly agree that it is more important to elect a candidate who makes them proud of their country, whereas non-Christians see this criterion as much less important.26 This finding makes sense. Civil religion rhetoric puts forward a particular monotheistic understanding of American national identity and claims that this identity applies to all citizens. Non-Christian respondents are less apt to desire a leader who makes them proud of their country when country itself is infused with a set of religious ideals that are often used to exclude.

This evidence suggests that American civil religion—an identity often expressed in political rhetoric—has the potential to be a divisive force in American politics. Merely asking individuals six questions about identification with American civil religion is enough to encourage many Americans to place less value on a candidate who makes them proud of their country. Civil religion rhetoric may provide an important form of symbolic representation for many Americans, but for those rhetorically marginalized from this identity, strong civil religion rhetoric may actually lead to negativity toward country more generally. Interestingly, theoretical approaches to civil religion often focus on its role in serving as a legitimizing force for the state itself (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2006). Although these data do not speak to the issue of political legitimacy directly, the notion that a subtle question-order experiment could make individuals have less desire for a candidate who makes them feel pride in their country is significant. When the civil religion net is not cast sufficiently wide, it could actually delegitimize certain aspects of the political process.

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