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

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From Persuasion to American Political Culture

In appealing to voters, presidential candidates typically invoke one of three religious identities: subgroup religion references to specific denominations and faith traditions; references to American civil religion, which involves spiritualized, yet banal expressions of American national identity; and divisive references to a culture war in American political life. The expression of these religious identities has important consequences for how faith and American national identity are understood in the public sphere. The concept of an American civil religion, for example, is often theorized to play a positive role in the maintenance of democratic institutions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously theorized that a “civil profession of faith” legitimizes democratic institutions (1762). In the American case, Tocqueville asserted a variant of the Rousseauian argument. Even though Americans, Alexis de Tocqueville argues, are divided into numerous sects, “they all see their religion in the same light” (1840, 449). The unity and the general moral wherewithal provided by religion is indispensable to American democracy: “Every religion . . . imposes on each man some obligations toward mankind, to be performed in common with the rest of mankind, and so it draws him away, from time to time, from thinking about himself. . . . Thus religious people are naturally strong just at the point where democratic peoples are weak” (Tocqueville 1840, 445).

If Tocqueville and Rousseau are correct, civil religion is indispensable to American democracy. At the same time, the evidence in this book raises serious doubts about whether the American civil religion casts a wide enough net to generate an inclusive and tolerant political culture. If it does not, civil religion may have a corrosive effect on religious freedom. As Rousseau (1762) himself recognized, civil religion is closely intertwined with intolerance for those who do not ascribe to its basic tenets. In chapter 3, I have shown that civil religion rhetoric has potentially divisive undercurrents. Of its adherents, it requires not only a belief in God but a belief in a very specific conception of God. This detailed attention to God image is not just a theoretical exercise. Evidence presented in chapter 6 suggests that these rhetorical nuances have observable consequences for the American public, making some feel suspicious of and distant from political candidates. In this way, civil religion rhetoric, although politically persuasive, does not live up to its billing as a source of political cohesion.

Even though the cultural impact of civil religion is potentially problematic, it is important not to oversell the negatives. Consider Kennedy’s remarks quoted at the outset of this chapter. Kennedy evokes this strong statement of American civil religion from the vantage of a religious outgroup facing substantial religious prejudice. Months earlier in his campaign, Kennedy worked to assure voters that “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic” (September 12, 1960, Houston, TX, Annenberg/Pew Archive of Presidential Campaign Discourse). Rhetori?cally, Kennedy supplanted fears that he would deliver descriptive representation that privileged Catholics with a symbolic alignment of wills. In this sense, the idea that leaders are active symbol-makers can be seen as potentially working to overcome virulent religious discrimination, insofar as the leader reconstitutes the symbol in the spirit of civil inclusivity. Even though American civil religion can marginalizes some voters, history suggests that the genre is adaptive enough to rhetorically accommodate a growing diversity of citizens. Ultimately, the future of religious rhetoric will be assessed on these terms—on how well it manages to carve out a rhetorical space that accommodates diversity and promotes tolerance while still managing to offer meaning and vision.

 
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