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Religious Rhetoric and American Politics

The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns

by Christopher B. Chapp

Publication Year: 2012

From Reagan's regular invocation of America as "a city on a hill" to Obama's use of spiritual language in describing social policy, religious rhetoric is a regular part of how candidates communicate with voters. Although the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test as a qualification to public office, many citizens base their decisions about candidates on their expressed religious beliefs and values. In Religious Rhetoric and American Politics, Christopher B. Chapp shows that Americans often make political choices because they identify with a "civil religion," not because they think of themselves as cultural warriors. Chapp examines the role of religious political rhetoric in American elections by analyzing both how political elites use religious language and how voters respond to different expressions of religion in the public sphere.

Chapp analyzes the content and context of political speeches and draws on survey data, historical evidence, and controlled experiments to evaluate how citizens respond to religious stumping. Effective religious rhetoric, he finds, is characterized by two factors-emotive cues and invocations of collective identity-and these factors regularly shape the outcomes of American presidential elections and the dynamics of political representation. While we tend to think that certain issues (e.g., abortion) are invoked to appeal to specific religious constituencies who vote solely on such issues, Chapp shows that religious rhetoric is often more encompassing and less issue-specific. He concludes that voter identification with an American civic religion remains a driving force in American elections, despite its potentially divisive undercurrents.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-8

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-9

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pp. ix-xiv

In spring 2011, I attended a speech by Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) at an interfaith dialogue at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Ellison’s talk occurred just a few weeks after he had taken part in controversial congressional subcommittee hearings that had been called to investigate “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” ...

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1. A Theory of Religious Rhetoric in American Campaigns

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pp. 1-16

During the 2004 presidential election, voters chose between candidates advocating starkly different approaches to a myriad of issues of national consequence. The United States was entangled in two costly wars and was still feeling the effects of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. ...

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2. Religious Rhetoric in American Political History

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pp. 17-38

Religious political rhetoric can overwhelm citizens with an array of different emotions, leading individuals to identify with a broad and varied range of groups and interests. We know very little, however, about exactly which group identities and emotions religious rhetoric is bringing to the surface. ...

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3. Religious Rhetoric and the Politics of Identity

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pp. 39-60

Speaking at an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, Bob Dole (R-Kans.) is characterizing drugs, crime, and child abandonment not just as public policy problems but as threats to the moral fiber of America— the “character” of the country. These challenges can be bested only by yoking together the time-tested values of God and country. ...

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4. Religious Rhetoric and the Politics of Emotive Appeals

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pp. 61-80

From Puritan jeremiads to the Bryan’s populist invocations, one defining feature of religious rhetoric is its strong emotive language. But we know very little about how its use varies to suit different political demands and what the consequences of emotive religious rhetoric are on the nature of American political culture. ...

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5. The Consequences of Religious Language on Presidential Candidate Evaluations

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pp. 81-103

In this passage, President Obama is invoking a by now familiar genre. Even in the midst of great uncertainty, America has a divinely inspired place in the world order. But when a president speaks, do Americans listen? Does invoking this creed have a special resonance with the American mass public— ...

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6. Civil Religion Identity and the Task of Political Representation

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pp. 104-130

Hanna Pitkin defines to represent as to “make present again.” In American politics, elected representatives go about the task of making their constituencies present again in varied and complex ways. A representative might, for example, deliver what Pitkin calls “substantive representation,” ...

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7. The Rhetorical Construction of Religious Constituencies

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pp. 131-138

Religious rhetoric is a defining feature of the American political campaign. Although the contours of the genre have changed over time, it contains two enduring elements that make it well suited to be a highly persuasive tool given the unique American religious landscape. ...


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pp. 139-154


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pp. 155-168


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pp. 169-174

E-ISBN-13: 9780801465680
E-ISBN-10: 0801465680
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801451263
Print-ISBN-10: 0801451264

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 867741334
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Religious Rhetoric and American Politics

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Religion and politics -- United States.
  • Rhetoric -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Identity politics -- United States.
  • Civil religion -- United States.
  • Political campaigns -- United States.
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