Functions of Religion in U.S. Political Rhetoric

By Caroline Skulski


As deliberate use of language intended to convey a message to a specific audience, rhetoric is an important tool used by politicians to garner support. Politicians need constituent support in order to win elections and accomplish effective policies while in office. According to public choice theory, which uses economic reasoning to analyze politics, politicians are more likely to act in their own-self interest rather than aim solely to accomplish certain policy agendas. Even though public choice theory is not universally accepted and has its limitations, the idea that politicians will likely take whatever course of action is necessary in the pursuit to project a persuasive image is both rational and supported by empirical studies (Hubbard & O’Brien 2013). While adopting certain positions can indeed attract the support of some constituents, politicians, especially on the national level, often employ rhetoric as a means of projecting a persuasive image to a broader audience. After all, very few voters will share the exact same stances as a candidate across the myriad collection of pertinent policy issues.

Additionally, the idea of rational ignorance suggests that the small marginal benefit voters receive from keeping themselves informed is often outweighed by the marginal cost of time and effort involved; thus, few voters will choose to inform themselves beyond the most convenient facts. According to Chapp (2012), voters instead often respond to a favorable impression of a candidate’s vision and leadership capability to guide the governing process in the right direction. While policy platforms constitute a part of campaign strategy designed to present an image, political rhetoric often plays a key role. Successful political rhetoric effectively activates identities and appeals to constituent emotions in ways that favor the candidate. As Chapp (2012) points out, the winner-take-all structure of American elections demands that presidential candidates attempt to appeal to a diverse audience with varied identities and beliefs, including a wide range of religious beliefs. As religion has both strong identifying and emotional pull, the efficacy of a politician’s religious rhetoric on a majority of the electorate is a critical component in producing favorable outcomes of elections and terms. Analysis of religious references in political rhetoric can help explain trends of interaction and attitude between the public and politicians in the religio-political sphere.

Presidential hopefuls seeking to favorably activate the ways in which voters identify themselves and feel need first to seek understanding of the ways in which voters identify themselves and feel. As stated earlier, most Americans identify with some level of religiosity; polls suggest most Americans seek the same quality in a president. As evidenced in PEW polls from 2011 and 2007, the majority of Americans would be less likely to support a candidate for president who does not believe in a god (Q49E, Q12G).(1) Upon examination of questions from a 2003 PEW poll, however, this valuation of a believing president proves to be somewhat circumscribed to other variables as well (Q.34F1A-Q.34F1E, Q.35F2A-Q.35F2E). Fifteen percent of Americans surveyed replied that they would have reason to not vote for an otherwise well-qualified Catholic nominee of their party, but only 10 percent of the same survey group responded that they would not vote for a Catholic nominee or had no comment. Americans also polled a higher percentage stating that they would have a reason not to vote for an Evangelical nominee than the percentage that would actually not vote for an Evangelical nominee. This trend is especially interesting when juxtaposed to the polling trends on a Jewish, Muslim, or atheist nominee. Fourteen percent of Americans surveyed said they would have a reason not to vote for a well-qualified Jewish nominee of their preferred party, but 15 percent of the survey group said they would not vote for a Jewish nominee or refused to comment. There was a higher percentage of people who said they would not vote for a Muslim or atheist than who said they had a reason not to do so as well. Consistency of logic would suggest that the percentages of people polled who claimed they would not vote for a nominee of a named faith and who claimed they would have a reason not to vote for a nominee of the same faith would be equal. Even prejudice would technically be a reason not to vote for someone of a certain faith; thus, discrepancies between the percentage of people who would not vote for and who would have reason not to vote for candidates of specific faiths suggests there might be a underlying factor in American political culture that would propagate the inconsistency.

A possible explanation for the discrepancies in the PEW polls might be that the way religion has been discussed in the political sphere has affected ingrained ideals and values of America political culture. In order to explore this possibility, the specific ways in which religion is employed in political discussion must be examined; in other words, religious political rhetoric must be analyzed. As supported by the analyses of Iancu and Balaban (2013), Paraschivescu (2012) and Bellah (1967), presidents and presidential hopefuls most often employ references to religion in their rhetoric as framing devices, at points of emphasis, in conjunction with references to a shared past and future, and to describe America in the light of spiritual themes. These types of religious references are typically nonspecific with instead attempt to appeal to a broad audience and persuade with emotive cues that inspire ethos and pathos. Implemented in this way, religion acts as a kind of cultural resource in American politics, as would be predicted by Chaves (1994). Putnam and Campbell (2010) support that religion is used culturally within American politics as a binding force. Chapp (2012) classifies this type of religious rhetoric as civil religion. Civil religion references tend to employ general statements of overarching religiosity that serve a unifying purpose. Kennedy’s speeches are often considered masterful examples of civil religion rhetoric, as evidenced in his 1961 inaugural address.

"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we shall ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own” (as cited in Bellah, 1967, p. 1).

Using general and nonsectarian appeal to religious faith, Kennedy employs civil religion to draw upon a collective identity. As seen in Kennedy’s speech, collective pronouns such as “we,” “our,” and “us” are often used in civil rhetoric to underscore unity. Shared destiny in a promising future and shared history in ideals set forth by the founding fathers are also classic elements of civil religion used in order to invoke collective identity. Candidates able to tie perceptions of their vision for the country to the idea of a shared American vision projected by civil religion are often more successful in their campaigns and careers. Henderson (1975) affirms the idea that the office of the president has a special relationship with civil religion; the words and actions of presidents over the years have shaped the course of civil religion, and civil religion conveys certain implications to the public on the role of the president that include uniting the country behind the vision of a better future.

While the message of civil religion attempts to convey collective identity and an inclusive shared destiny, the effect can be just the opposite on some members of the constituency. Atheists might understandably feel isolated from the message of a shared American destiny, as they do not share even the nonspecific faith conveyed in civil religion rhetoric and then tied to the American experience. Even people of certain religions who identify with belief in a God can feel isolated by and from civil religion. Chapp (2012) suggests that non-Christian believers of other faiths feel isolated from even general statements of religiosity not tied to any tradition because of the way civil religion typically portrays God. Civil religion tends to describe God as paternalistic, providing a role more in line with the Christian tradition than other faiths. Thus, even when civil religion attempts to be inclusive, non-Christians might feel disconnected from the language of civil religion and thus assume they are not extended the same invitation to the shared destiny and unity as those to whom the language of civil religion implies belong. Likewise, Christians might inadvertently see the message of civil religion references as applying more specifically to them as the language of the rhetoric is often more tailored toward Christianity. The fact that this conditioning of American civil religion causes civil religion identification to be stronger among Christians than non-Christians seems to have bearing in regard to the previously discussed discrepancies in the 2003 PEW Poll. Perhaps the reason Americans were inclined to not vote for Jewish, Muslim, or atheist candidates without indicating they had a conscious reason not to vote for them was an unconscious conditioning of public opinion by civil religion references. Perhaps Americans unknowingly viewed a Jewish, Muslim, or atheist candidate as lacking the vision and capability to lead the country in the right direction because of the dissociation of those faiths with the language of civil religion, which in turned is tied to a special destiny and vision for America. However backward and non-progressive that speculation might seem, hope remains for the inclusivity of civil religion, as Chapp (2012) noted that American civil religion could be morphing into a more “Abrahamic” tradition, including the Muslim and Jewish traditions more frequently. Obama’s speeches, such as his 2009 inaugural address, are promising indicators of an increasing Abrahamic dimension to American civil religion: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers...we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” (as cited in Iancu & Balaban, 2012, p. 115). By using another religious rhetorical strategy known as subgroup references, Obama differentiates groups of varying faiths, but his overall message is of cohesion, cooperation, and unity. By specifically mentioning subgroups as a means to invoke collective identity, it could be possible for the subgroups to eventually fold into the implied collection of civil religion. The idea that civil religion could adjust and is indeed adjusting to become more inclusive is supported by that fact that Catholics used to be isolated from civil religion and discriminated, but now are largely included. Considering the PEW poll that sparked this line of inquiry was taken in 2003, it would indeed be interesting to take a new survey today and assess whether civil religion is developing and conditioning us differently.

Thus far throughout this discussion of religious in U.S. political rhetoric, it has been fairly apparent that the American public should have a conditional level of expectation if not comfort with politicians talking about religion. After all, as Iancu and Balaban (2012) point out, the only inaugural address not to feature any reference to God or divinity was Washington’s second inaugural address (p. 105). Often used to bookend a public address or to highlight points of emphasis, religious rhetoric can even be understood as a convention in political discourse, although it admittedly still carries great meaning beyond compositional form. Stepan (2005) reaffirms that religion belongs on the political agenda and in fact brings its own merit and meaning to the table. As Stepan points out, the outcomes of democratic bargaining in reality are rarely “conceptually freestanding” but rather often “deeply embedded in...comprehensive doctrine” (p. 11). In other words, while in theory some might want to shelf religious lines of reasoning, religion in reality does inform people’s values and so can never truly be removed from the equation, nor should it have to be. If religion affects the way real people make decisions, it would be non-representative of reality to expect politicians to ignore any effects of religion. Minkenberg (2010) provides further support that religion do not have to be placed in opposition or attempt to be extricated from each other, as he lists several classifications of religion that can coexist with a democracy. However, analysis of another PEW poll conducted from 2001 to 2012 presents a new troubling question to the role of religion in U.S. politics, specifically political rhetoric (Q.0). As previously garnered from the 2007 and 2011 polls (Q49E, Q12G), the majority of Americans want a president who is a believer in some kind of religion. As the majority desire to have the office of the president filled by someone who believes in God, it is not unreasonable to project that a majority might also prefer other positions to be held by those of some kind of faith. However, the 2001-2012 poll presents a challenge to this valuation in that an increasing plurality of Americans believe there is too much expression of religion by politicians, while a relatively constant percentage say politicians express too little faith and a decreasing percentage say politicians express the right amount of religious faith (Q.0). The way Americans respond to religion in political messages is changing; thus, either the Americans or the messages must also be different somehow. Secularization theory could be one possible reason that would credit the rise in percentage who believe there is too much expression of religion in politics to a waning tolerance for religious references by a changing American public. The other possible explanation is that the frequency or form of religious references in politics differs from what the public is comfortable with hearing.

Secularization of the American public, increasing frequency of religious references in politics, and unappealing forms of religious rhetoric could all provide possible explanations as to why an increasing percentage of Americans believe there is too much expression of religion in politics. If the American public was becoming increasingly secular, it would effectively explain the increasing percentage of constituents who believe there is too much expression of religion in politics, as the public’s tolerance for political references to religion would be waning. However, as Berger (1999) suggests, the idea that as the world modernizes it is uniformly secularizing is unlikely to be true, as evidence suggests that modernity prompts strong counter-secularization forces in addition to any secularization forces. Like Stepan (2005), Berger maintains that religion is not likely to disappear from the public agenda any time soon. Finally, as discussed before, the PEW polls from 2011 and 2007 show that most Americans do desire a president who believes in God (Q49E, Q12G), which likely not be the case in the event of secularization. Thus, as secularization likely does not present a convincing explanation for Americans’ changing responses to religious references in political messages, the religious references themselves are most likely what is setting off the American public. If politicians were increasing their use of religious references in their political rhetoric, it might indeed prompt an increasing percentage of Americans to reach their limit of approval. However, as Chapp (2012) suggests, most presidential candidates and presidents do not vary significantly in how often they reference religion (p. 50). Arguments of Iancu & Balaban (2013) and Paraschivescu (2012) reinforce Chapp’s point and claim that the frequency of religious references in public addresses varies relatively little between candidates of different parties and election cycles as well as between different terms of elected presidents. While politicians on state and local levels might be increasing the frequency in which they use religious references, I believe the most likely explanation for why an increasing percentage of Americans believe there is too much expression of religion in politics is because the nature and content of some religious rhetoric is being ill-received. As discussed earlier, the effect of civil religion references on a majority of American citizens is to draw on notions of collective identity, unity, and a shared vision of the future. Chapp (2012) argues that candidates who are able to effectively employ civil religion in their political rhetoric end up winning elections more often than candidates who are not as adept with civil religion. Thus, if civil religion references are making presidents successful among the constituents, how could it possible for constituents to simultaneously become increasingly irritated with this form of religious rhetoric? The answer, of course, is that majority constituents are indeed not tiring with civil religion references used by presidents. Instead, I posit that the percentage of American who believe there is too much religion expression of religion in politics are frustrated by a different form of religious rhetoric used on different political stage.

Unlike the sweeping, encompassing language of civil religion, culture war references in political rhetoric are inherently divisive. According to Chapp (2012), culture war rhetoric pits members of a morally sound ingroup with the right vision for the future against a moral crisis prompted by an outgroup. If enough people fall into the ingroup, culture wars rhetoric can be a highly effective way of gathering strong support. As opposed to civil religion, which aims to unify the general public in support of a candidate on the basis of ideals held in common, culture war references aim to unify a specific group on the grounds that they are different from and better than an “other.” In his 1980 nomination acceptance speech, Reagan demonstrated culture wars rhetoric in his statement that, “The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal, and moral responsibility of Democratic party leadership in the White House and in Congress for this unprecedented calamity that has befallen us” (as cited in Chapp, 2012, p. 57). The Democratic party is clearly painted in the wrong, while the Republican party headed by Reagan is presented as possessing a distinctly different moral vision that will rectify the situation. The emotive qualities of culture war rhetoric are important in tempering its effects; for example, culture war rhetoric promoting a sense of anxiety or uneasiness can prompt the audience to seek additional information and constructively challenge the status quo, while hostile or angry culture war rhetoric can entrench factions against each other and result in political standoffs. After a while, people can become frustrated with mounting hostility and the kind of ineffectual stubbornness that can result from with culture war references. Also, culture wars are used in junction with defense of certain policy positions far more often than civil religion references. By associating religious references and often religious justification with policy and then delineating between ingroups and outgroups, culture war references can be incredibly controversial. However, as stated in Chapp (2012), “presidential candidates are not leading leading the charge in polarizing mass opinion through the use of religious rhetoric” (75). This would suggest that, despite the example cited from Reagan in 1980, the majority of inflammatory uses of religious rhetoric in politics are by officials other than presidents. The increasing percentage of Americans who believe there is too much expression of religion in politics are most likely frustrated with inflammatory, divisive religious rhetoric used by politicians other than the president who could range from local to state to even Congressional representatives.

Traceable back through decades and centuries of speeches, addresses and documents, religious rhetoric has been a perennial presence in the American political tradition. On the national level, references to civil religion have unified and continue to unify people by tapping in to a shared basis of faith that is then extended to imply a shared and special destiny. Civil religion will need to adjust as the country moves forward and the population’s religious dynamics shift, but all signs point to the possibility of that transition in the future, if it is not already underway. More divisive religious references are becoming increasingly unpopular with the public and will also likely need to transform in some way to become relevant and convincing again, or they will lie dormant in favor of rhetorical strategies more lucrative to politicians until proved useful again.


(1) For the sake of convenience, each PEW poll used can be identified by a specific survey and question number sequence that can be matched with a URL to the direct link of the poll results in the Works Cited section.