Yes, Ronald Reagan's rhetoric was unique--but statistically, how unique?

Author:Schonhardt-Bailey, Cheryl

While religious affiliation has long been considered to be "one of the most accurate, and least appreciated" indicators of political affiliation (Gallup and Castelli 1989, 249), political scientists paid scant attention to religion in U.S. politics until recent years, ascribing it "second-class status" as an area of study (Wolfe 2010, 20). However, as religion is coming to shape more features of the American political landscape, attention is turning toward measuring its significance. For instance, some have interpreted its growing importance as part of a larger phenomenon of increasing partisan polarization, with highly religious Americans concentrated at the Republican right of the political spectrum and secular Americans at the Democratic left. According to this view, Christian conservatives in the Republican Party have shifted the party to the right on social issues, while the Democratic Party is moving to the left on social issues, to reflect its relatively larger contingent of secular members. The end product is a political party division between religious and secular Americans, with a shrinking pool of moderately religious Americans (Putnam and Campbell 2010; Wilcox and Robinson 2007).

Yet prior to this phenomenon of religious polarization, religion had not been entirely absent from the literature on American politics: from the 1960s onwards, the concept of civil religion has provided insight into and discussion on the role of religion in American politics. While the concept had origins in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, Robert Bellah (1967) revived its usage, using evidence particularly from presidential inaugural addresses (Bellah 1967). As heads of state, American presidents are seen as the prophets or ceremonial priests of civil religion, especially as they invoke divine assistance and guidance (Chidester 1988, 91; Fowler, Hertzke, and Olson 1999, 116). Bellah (1967) argued that American civil religion is nondenominational, and so when presidents use God and other religious phrases and imagery, they are not conveying their own private religion, but rather appealing to a religious common denominator shared by the majority of Americans. Clearly this supposed religious common denominator is undergoing a sea-change if we are in the midst of the more recent phenomenon of political/religious polarization. If America is dividing into highly religious Republicans and secular Democrats, where is the religious common denominator? In the midst of this great schism sits the U.S. president, whose language and rhetoric has become more closely scrutinized for its religious content and meaning.

A second--and much larger--literature on the presidency of Ronald Reagan has drawn upon the concept of civil religion to help explain Reagan's reputation as the "Great Communicator." While some have attributed this reputation to Reagan's acting experience (Auer 1992), his use of figurative rhetoric (Jasinski 1992), or key "rhetorical moments" that transformed him from actor to president (Blankenship and Muir 1992), a common theme is that Reagan was distinctive among recent American presidents in his use of civil religion rhetoric--and this is key to understanding his acquired reputation as the Great Communicator (Ritter and Henry 1992, 121). He is said to have turned civil religion rhetoric "into a formidable political weapon. In using it he rendered mute those who would oppose him" (Weiler and Pearce 1992, 29).

Within the civil religion literature on U.S. presidents--and particularly those explanations for Reagan's Great Communicator reputation that point to his use of civil religion rhetoric--are three problems of measurement: (1) the empirical evidence is usually anecdotal rather than systematic; (2) without systematic evidence, it is unclear just how unique Reagan's rhetoric (and his apparent reliance on civil religion) was from other recent presidents; and (3) to the extent that evidence of civil religion is found in speeches of U.S. presidents, it is usually from inaugural addresses, which by their very nature are designed to set out the new president's broader principles and "presidential commitment to the country's basic principles" (Campbell and Jamieson 1985) and so are biased in favor of finding civil religion rhetoric. We address these three problems by employing automated textual analysis software to measure statistically the civil religion rhetoric in Reagan's seminal speeches, his State of the Union speeches alone, and then the State of the Union speeches of all modern presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. By using State of the Union speeches as our basis of comparison for Reagan's use of civil religion, we are employing a more difficult challenge for finding evidence of this rhetoric. Unlike inaugurals, State of the Union speeches are constitutionally mandated and, as such, they usually identify what the incumbent president views as problems and then propose legislative action and other means to address these problems (Campbell and Jamieson 1985). Hence, unlike inaugurals, State of the Union speeches tend to be more policy prescriptive and so are less likely to embellish upon the broader, more principled rhetoric of civil religion. (We thus follow Campbell and Jamieson's assessment that State of the Union addresses typically contain more substance and less style than inaugural addresses (Campbell and Jamieson 2008)). (1) And finally, our approach allows us not only to assign statistical significance to the thematic content of these speeches, but also to employ correspondence analysis to depict spatially the shifting dimensionality in themes used by presidents. We therefore offer a systematic and statistically robust way to gauge the extent to which Reagan's rhetoric was distinct from other recent presidents.

Our findings offer strong evidence for Reagan's unique usage of the civil religion rhetoric: well over half (59%) of the discourse in his seminal speeches and 48% of the same in his State of the Union speeches focus on themes of civil religion. While other modern presidents invoke some of these same themes in their State of the Union speeches, none were as explicit or as extensive as Reagan, particularly in the usage of "God." Perhaps even more interesting is a secondary--and unexpected--finding from our correspondence analysis of the State of the Union speeches of all the modern presidents. We find what appears to be a distinct shift in presidential rhetoric from themes concerned with (1) institutions, to ones focused more on (2) individuals, families, and children. All presidents from Reagan onward have spoken more about individuals, families, and children; whereas their predecessors (with the exception of Lyndon Johnson) spoke more about institutions (e.g., relations between the executive and Congress, federalism). Whether Reagan was a rhetorical "pivot" in this respect may be debated; but it does raise implications for further research.

We begin in the next two sections with a short overview of civil religion rhetoric in presidential speeches and particularly that by Reagan. In the third section we explain our data and provide a brief description of our methodology. The fourth section presents the results from our textual analysis, placing Reagan's rhetoric in historical context to ascertain the extent to which his use of religious terms differs from other presidents, and the fifth section concludes. Our Appendix provides a fuller description of our methodology and software.

Civil Religion Rhetoric in Presidential Speeches

Defining Civil Religion

Many authors have sought to capture the essence of the concept of civil religion (Albanese 1976; Bellah and Hammond 1980; Dunn 1984; Hughey 1983), but the precise definition can vary from author to author. Some point to the unifying effect that it is said to exert on a diverse American public, pointing to "the collection of beliefs, values, rites, ceremonies, and symbols which ... provide [Americans] with an overarching sense of unity above and beyond all internal conflicts and differences" (Pierard and Linder 1988, 23). Others highlight the nation's unique history as giving rise to its identity as a chosen nation: "At the core of the rich and subtle concept of civil religion is the idea that a nation tries to understand its historical experience and national purpose in religious terms ... so a civil religion reflects an attempt by citizens to imbue their nation with a transcendent value. The nation is recognized as a secular institution, yet one that is somehow touched by the hand of God" (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2007, 54). Chidester organizes the various strands into three types of American civil religion (1988, 83-109): (1) culture religion, which includes the symbols, values, and ceremonies that serve to unify Americans--such as myths (heroic battles, founding fathers), doctrines (equality, liberty and justice), ritual holidays (Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Memorial Day), patriotism and love of country as personal experiences, and key institutions that serve as carriers of civil religion (especially the public school system); (2) religious nationalism, whereby Americans are seen as the chosen people, and manifest destiny encapsulates the American moral mission to extend its political power geographically (including against the forces of communism during the Cold War); and (3) transcendent religion, where America's actual history and experience is judged and "measured against a higher law" or a set of sacred principles (Chidester 1988, 85). In a somewhat parallel attempt to define civil religion, Lejon (1988, 198) traces its roots to three sources, from which he then lists defining keywords: (1) Puritanism (chosen land, chosen people, mission, moralism, etc.); (2) Enlightenment (natural law, reason, moral teaching, democracy, etc.); and (3) American history (heroes, sacrifice, moral crusades, etc.).

As is evident from...

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