Author exploring 'political' religion Candidates’ rhetoric often vague: Chapp
WHITEWATER Is it religion or religious rhetoric when candidates on the campaign trail talk about their faith?
A new book by UW-Whitewater assistant professor Christopher Chapp explores both subjects we are instructed to avoid at family gatherings—religion and politics. In “Religious Rhetoric and American Politics,” Chapp looks at how candidates refer to religion and how it reflects on the candidates’ moral values.
“My interest in this dates back to what was referred to as the God gap based on exit polling in the 2004 presidential race,” Chapp said. “That polling found that those who attended church regularly favored Bush, while those who attended less regularly favored Kerry.”
Digging deeper, Chapp found that the religious perception shaped the issue of character and morals. He discovered subtle references to religion he called “civic religious
rhetoric.” He formed his conclusions after reading transcripts of 1,300 presidential campaign speeches from 1980 through the 2008 campaign.
“Most candidates employed very effective religious communication by linking America to non-denominational principles and according America a sacred place in the world order,” Chapp said. “There’s a sense of religious purpose, but it’s delivered in a patriotic manner.”
An example, Chapp said, was a reference to religion President Obama gave in his convention speech:
“You know what, that’s not who we are. That’s not what this country is about. As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, rights that no man or government can take away,” Obama said.
Chapp pointed out that Obama did not refer by name to Christians, Jews or members of any other religion.
“He said ‘as Americans we believe we are endowed by our Creator,’’’ Chapp said. “This is an example of the non-denominational use of civic religious rhetoric.”
Direct references to a candidate’s specific religion are rare, Chapp said, but he offered two from convention speeches.
“Mitt Romney briefly mentioned his experiences as a Mormon, and Richard Nixon made mention in 1960 of his Quaker mother,” Chapp said. “But, more often, we see references to the civil religious rhetoric.”
Those who seek to make religion a campaign issue have not been successful, Chapp said.
“There is a small but very loud minority who attempt to make religion an issue,” he said. “There are those who want to paint President Obama as a Muslim,” he said. “Those whose vote may be influenced by this would probably not vote for him anyway.”
Romney’s religion, on the other hand, has been attacked by Evangelicals who often vote for the Republican presidential candidate.
“There are some Evangelicals who say they are concerned that Romney is not a Christian,” Chapp said. “They will probably not vote for Obama. The question is whether they will sit on the sidelines and not vote for Romney.”
Minus the small but vocal minority, the civic religious rhetoric places America in a sacred place in the world order where religion cuts across denominations, Chapp said.
“Candidates seek to link religion to America and it works,” he said. “Most voters are religious.”