Religion and Rhetoric

October 2, 2012
Religion and Rhetoric Illustration

Illustration by Jon Reinhurt

As the November election approaches, Dr. Martin Medhurst, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication and professor of political science, takes a look at how the language of faith has often been a part of the political campaign process for candidates from all sides.

The issue of how churches -- and religion in general -- ought to relate to public life was debated even before there was a United States of America. The Continental Congress appointed chaplains to lead prayers. George Washington himself, in his Farewell Address, held that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports." He issued proclamations for days of prayer and thanksgiving, actions that his successors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, refused to follow.

The election of 1800 was bitterly contested and featured the first use of religious language and argument directed against a presidential candidate. Jefferson was called an "atheist" and an "infidel." Rumors were circulated that, if elected, Jefferson would confiscate Bibles and turn the nation into an atheistic Republic. One newspaper warned: "the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart is 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD -- AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; Or impiously declare for JEFFERSON -- AND NO GOD!!!" It was the first time -- but far from the last -- that religion would become a topic of presidential campaigning.

From the very beginning, there was spirited disagreement about what the proper role of religion should be in government. But political campaigns were another matter altogether. There were no rules or laws governing the use of religious topics, language or arguments. In a country that valued free speech, candidates and their surrogates could make whatever appeals they believed would be effective in helping to elect their preferred candidate. And they did.

The campaign of 1828 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson featured an even nastier religious element than the 1800 election. Jackson supporters charged that Adams had "denounced the Roman Catholics as bigots, worshippers of images, and declared that they did not read their Bibles"; furthermore, they charged Adams with secretly working to "unite CHURCH AND STATE after the manner of the English monarch."

For most of the 19th century, the religious language of the presidents was limited to general expressions of supplication for God's blessing. In the early part of the century, those expressions were often cast in the language of Deism, with references to "the Almighty Hand," "Divine Providence," the "Ruler of Nations," and other rather generic labels for God. But from the outset, there was also recourse to the Bible, especially to the Hebrew Scriptures, for metaphors or analogies that could be applied to current political situations. America was imaged as God's New Israel, a people called to make an exodus out of a land of bondage and into a new promised land, to be a light to the nations, a city upon a hill.

This Puritan habit of using biblical imagery, stories, parables and events to interpret contemporary political situations, which came to a climax right before and during the Revolutionary War, painted a nation that according to sociologist Robert Bellah "was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny."

It is the language of this civil religion that dominated most American presidential campaigns from the Civil War until the 1970s. Terms such as calling, covenant, mission, chosen people, sacrifice, rebirth of freedom and democratic faith are hallmarks of the rhetoric of civil religion. These symbols, when combined with quotations from (or allusions to) the Bible form a powerful civil-religious rhetoric which, in the hands of some presidential candidates, has proven both memorable and effective.

Perhaps no candidate for the presidency used religious rhetoric more consistently than William Jennings Bryan, who was the standard bearer of the Democratic Party in 1896, 1900 and 1908. An advocate for the common man and laborer, Bryan is best remembered today for his speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, where he proclaimed: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

But four years later, Bryan used even more explicitly religious rhetoric when he told the 1900 Democratic National Convention: "If true Christianity consists in carrying out in our daily lives the teachings of Christ, who will say that we are commanded to civilize with dynamite and proselyte with the sword? ... Imperialism finds no warrant in the Bible. The command 'Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature' has no Gatling-gun attachment."

Bryan was not the first to use the words of the Bible to condemn policies of the opposing party, nor would he be the last. No president was more adept at biblical quotation and allusion than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following a campaign in which religious language played almost no role, FDR stunned the nation in his first inaugural address by assuring his listeners that "we are stricken by no plague of locusts," charging that "unscrupulous moneychangers" were to blame for the problems of the Great Depression, and reminding his audience that "our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men."

Throughout the 12 years of his presidency, FDR would call on both civil-religious and biblical language to defend his policies, attack his opponents and reason with the American people. At the 1936 Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt lambasted those political leaders who had given the country "nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge," assuring his listeners that "your government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side."

This pattern of civil-religious discourse combined with biblical images and allusions persisted in presidential campaign rhetoric until the election of 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter self-identified as a "born-again Christian." Carter spoke the language of orthodox, evangelical Christianity. Suddenly, terms and images that had seldom been a part of presidential politics started to become commonplace: references to Jesus and to Christ, to personal prayer, to the Bible as the Word of God, to salvation, to personal sins, and to specific New Testament teachings that went well beyond the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule.

When Ronald Reagan captured the Republican nomination in 1980, he married the language of evangelical Christianity, which Carter had introduced, with appeals based on civil-religious concepts ("a shining city on a hill") and used them to forge a powerful alliance with conservative evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Jews, a coalition that came to be called the New Religious Right. And presidential campaigns have never been the same since.

It would, however, be a mistake to assume that this recourse to a more particularistic, evangelical style of discourse was limited to conservative Republicans. Certainly, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were practitioners, to greater or lesser degrees, of this kind of discourse. But so, too, were Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman and Barack Obama.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, Gore often spoke of his faith tradition. He invoked God, the Bible, sin and evil, and he endorsed "faith-based and values-based organizations" -- the same rhetoric and largely the same policy stance as his opponent, George W. Bush. Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, the first Jew to run for vice president on a major party ticket, used even more explicit religious rhetoric during the campaign. At Notre Dame, Lieberman called for "a new great American spiritual awakening," asking his listeners to take "religious beliefs and values -- our sense of justice, of right and wrong -- into America's cultural and communal life."

Not all presidential candidates have been adept at using religious rhetoric, whether of the older civil-religious variety or the newer evangelical style. Candidates such as Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and John McCain never seemed comfortable speaking about religious or moral topics in any kind of language, and each paid an electoral price for failing to connect his visions and values with those of the voting public. Indeed, one scholar has pointed to the fact that since 1976 every presidential election has been won by the candidate who was most comfortable speaking the language of faith, morals and religion.

Both Obama and Mitt Romney have experienced the power of religious argument and sentiment, both in their positive and negative dimensions. In the 2008 presidential contest, Obama repeatedly spoke of his Christian commitment, telling one campaign audience, "There's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth -- that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. ... My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work." The language is almost purely evangelical in orientation, references to awakening, truth, an allusion to scripture, mention of his personal faith, fulfilling God's will, and seeking to do the Lord's work.

Romney has a more difficult rhetorical road because he is a Mormon, and no Mormon has ever, until now, been a major party nominee for the presidency. In the 2008 primaries, Romney experienced a great deal of interest in -- and criticism of -- his faith. So much so, in fact, that he felt compelled to deliver a speech at Texas A&M University titled "Faith in America." In that speech, he tried to reassure his supporters that while he believed in the separation of church and state, he did not separate religious values from his political views, even proclaiming that he believed Jesus to be "the son of God and the savior of mankind."

In the 2012 campaign, Romney has tried to downplay his faith. Speaking at Liberty University in May, Romney was forced to acknowledge differences even as he made an appeal based on similarity of values. "People of different faiths, like you and me," Romney said, "sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed or theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."

But even when candidates intentionally try to avoid religious rhetoric, other actors in the political world -- the media or their opponents -- often refuse to play along. In Romney's case, for example, Businessweek ran a cover that satirized the business acumen of Mormons, while the New York Times ran stories about how the founding families of Mormonism were bankrolling the Romney campaign.

Perhaps concerned that others were going to define his Mormon faith, Romney changed gears in the days leading up to the Republican National Convention. At the convention, surrogate speakers praised Romney's commitment to his faith and described him as a caring pastor who comforted and consoled others in their time of trial. Other speakers, such as Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee, tried to link Romney's faith to more mainstream expressions of American religion, with the Roman Catholic Ryan going so far as to claim that "our different faiths come together in the same moral creed." Romney, himself, after studiously avoiding even the word Mormon for most of the campaign, told the convention audience: "We were Mormons growing up in Michigan. ... Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church. When we were new to the community, it was welcoming. ... And that's how it is in America. We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad." In this formulation, Mormonism becomes merely one of numerous expressions of Americanism.

Obama's use of religious rhetoric has been more muted in the 2012 campaign. Even so, he still has managed to link his faith to several policy stances, including taxes and gay marriage. Announcing his support for a tax increase on high-income earners, Obama said, "But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that, 'for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'" Likewise, when announcing his change of stance on gay marriage, Obama reached for religious justification: "When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is ... the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated."

Religious discourse serves many functions for presidential candidates. It testifies to their character, provides justifications for their policies, grounds their ethical judgments, serves as a rich resource of metaphor and analogy, and helps bolster American ideals such as justice, tolerance and liberty. Most of all, it helps candidates to identify with their audiences, and that is what elections are all about.