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Religious Rhetoric and American Politics

The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns

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.

Author Information

ChappChristopher B.:

Christopher B. Chapp is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater.


Robert Booth Fowler, University of Wisconsin–Madison, author of Unconventional Partners: Religion and Liberal Culture in the United States:

"Religious Rhetoric and American Politics ranges over research on religion and voting, political communication and representation, social psychology, and American history in impressive fashion. Christopher B. Chapp's focus on the roles of emotions and human identities and how they are affected by religious rhetoric and its political implications is definitely valuable. I learned a lot from this book."

"Whether we like it or not, religious rhetoric is part of the American political landscape, but this book provides some sorely needed perspective for policymakers seeking to understand what kind of spiritual language appeals to most Americans."

""In this very impressive bookChapp provides the first systematic treatment of the use of religious rhetoric in American politics.... Religious Rhetoric and American Politics provides a thorough review of a largely under studied phenomenon." —J. Christopher Soper"

"This brief but valuable volume provides a rich history of the use of religious rhetoric throughout American political history from the Puritans to the founders, through the Civil War, Progressive Era, Cold War, and contemporary politics, and it evaluates the impact of emotion and tone in the use of that rhetoric.... This book would be useful to the historian and political scientist alike."

Audience: General/trade;