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The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric

Absolutist Appeals and Political Persuasion

Morgan Marietta

Publication Year: 2012

Revealing what lies behind much contemporary political rhetoric, Morgan Marietta shows that the language of America's most prominent leaders often relies on deep, even sacred, ideals. Comprehensively and in great detail surveying the rhetorical inventions employed in influential social movements and into the highest levels of government, The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric systematically analyzes the use of absolutist claims—and appeals to what a speaker deems to be universal truths—as essential elements of persuasion in the American political landscape. In exploring the sometimes subtle ways in which politicians employ this"sacred rhetoric,"Marietta engagingly demonstrates its impact on citizens' reasoning, public discourse, and the very nature of American democracy.

Published by: Baylor University Press

Series: Studies in Rhetoric and Religion


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Half Title Page, About the Series, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

List of Tables and Figures

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

My father taught me to read. My professor and friend Mark Perlman taught me what it was good for. His family has continued to look after me since his passing. I owe many debts, to these souls and others, that I am unlikely to repay but can at least acknowledge...

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pp. 1-3

This book is about the significance of the political sacred, moving beyond the pretense that citizens respond most readily to reasoned arguments geared to their self-interest. Sacredness can be understood as the sense in which a value is absolute, resisting the normal compromises and trade-offs with...

Part I: The Psychology of Sacred Rhetoric

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pp. 5-72

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1. Sacred Rhetoric in American Politics

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pp. 7-23

Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion, wrote that human experience occurs in “a world capable of becoming sacred.”1 Eliade meant that this is true of all human societies, not merely among the explicitly religious. The sacred is not only for the pious. Perhaps more important is his recognition...

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2. Values and Value Conflict, Sacred Values and Sacred Rhetoric

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pp. 25-40

Conceptualizing sacred rhetoric relies on an understanding of value conflict, the inevitable result of the condition that our political judgments rely on core values that cannot be justified. Sacred values are the most clear form of beliefs for which we make no pretense that their superiority can...

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3. The Reasoning Effect: Sacred Rhetoric and Deliberation

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pp. 41-59

The form as well as the content of an appeal can affect how we perceive its message. An example of the influence of rhetorical form is the negative reaction of many American citizens to flag burning during the protests of the 1960s and 1970s. The same message without the same emotional response...

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4. The Activation Effect: Sacred Rhetoric and Participation

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pp. 61-72

The shift from mundane opinion to sacred value signals not only a change in how citizens reason but also a change in how they engage in politics. The sacred shift engendered by absolutist rhetoric may have important consequences for American democracy, increasing citizen engagement at the...

Part II: Political Consequences of Sacred Rhetoric

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p. 73

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5. “From My Cold, Dead Hands”: Sacred Rhetoric and Social Movements

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pp. 75-102

Social movements throughout American history have not shied away from sacred commitments. Prominent examples include abolition, free silver, temperance, women’s suffrage, and civil rights, to name only a few. Contemporary movements grounded in sacred rhetoric include both the...

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6. The Absolutist Advantage: Sacred Rhetoric in the Bush Era

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pp. 103-138

The significance of value language may be more clear to rhetoricians than to politicians. A popular rhetoric text from the 1960s concluded with this “moral law” of speaking...

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7. Sacred Rhetoric from Carter to Clinton: The 1976-1996 Presidential Debates

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pp. 139-159

While the 2000 and 2004 elections are powerful examples of the role of sacred rhetoric, we may learn more by examining the influence of sacred appeals across a broader scope. In this chapter I examine the rhetoric of presidential hopefuls in the decades prior to the George W. Bush years, and...

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8. Sacred Rhetoric, the 2008 Campaigns, and the Democratic Party

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pp. 161-207

Given the evidence for an absolutist advantage, our discussion ends with two questions of some importance to citizens and leaders on the left: can Democrats also gain the advantages of sacred rhetoric, and what impediments do they face? In this chapter I focus on the 2008 campaigns as an...

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Conclusion: "A Cure for Thought and the Diseases It Breeds"

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pp. 209-214

Whether sacred rhetoric is a disease depends on your view of the groups who are gaining its political advantages, as well as your view of what constitutes a healthy democracy. One can easily come to a negative view, as sacred appeals increase discord and decrease deliberation. But this may be...

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Methodological Appendix: Subjects, an Experimental Approach

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pp. 215-221

“If we are to talk about the human mind, let us start with human beings.” With these words, Robert Lane starts his classic text on American thought, Political Ideology: Why the Common Man Believes What He Does. Like Lane, our purpose is to understand a facet of political thinking—in this case how...


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pp. 223-247


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pp. 249-258


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pp. 259-263

Back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781602583887
E-ISBN-10: 1602583889
Print-ISBN-13: 9781602583863
Print-ISBN-10: 1602583862

Page Count: 270
Illustrations: 2
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1st
Series Title: Studies in Rhetoric and Religion
Series Editor Byline: Martin J. Medhurst, Editorial Board Chair See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 785785366
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Rhetoric -- Religious aspects.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Religion and politics -- United States.
  • Ethical absolutism -- Political aspects -- United States.
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