Theses Doctoral

God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion

O'Connell, David Joseph

How have American presidents used religious rhetoric? Has it helped them achieve their goals? Why or why not? These are the main questions this dissertation attempts to grapple with. I begin my study by developing a typology of presidential religious rhetoric that consists of three basic styles of speech. Ceremonial religious rhetoric is meant to capture those times when a president uses religious language in a broad sense that is appropriate for the occasion. Examples would include holiday addresses and funeral eulogies. I label a second variant of religious rhetoric comforting and calming. A president will frequently use religious rhetoric as he tries to shepherd the country through the difficult aftermath of a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or a riot. The final kind I have called instrumental. A president uses instrumental religious rhetoric when he makes an argument founded on religious concepts or beliefs in an attempt to convince interested parties to support a goal of his, such as passing a piece of legislation. The majority of the project focuses on this last type. I propose a strict set of coding rules for both identifying when instrumental religious rhetoric has appeared and for gauging its possible impact. My measures of potential effectiveness focus on the president's three most important relationships- his relationship with the public, his relationship with the media and his relationship with Congress. The eight case study chapters include analyses of Eisenhower's calls for increased mutual security funding, Carter's rhetoric describing his energy policies and Clinton's rhetoric about the impeachment proceedings against him, among others. The limited number of case studies immediately yields an interesting finding: it turns out that presidents do not often make consistent religious arguments for their governmental objectives. Further, when instrumental religious rhetoric is used, presidents limit themselves to discussing certain issues where religion might be said to be naturally applicable- questions of national security, civil rights and scandal. As it is, two presidents, Truman and Nixon, never used a religious rhetorical strategy at all. Indeed, it appears that whether due to personal taste or political complications, almost all presidents are quite uncomfortable using instrumental religious rhetoric. Therefore, a crisis is shown to be a necessary condition for a president to engage in religious speechifying. The existence of a crisis seems to be needed to force many a president to overcome his reluctance to drape his goals in religious rhetoric. The main finding of this dissertation, however, is that instrumental religious rhetoric is not very helpful to a goal-oriented president. In nearly every case, public opinion does not respond to the president's religious pleas, the media reacts critically to both his ideas and his language and the reception of his proposals in Congress disappoints. This surprising conclusion displaces the results of earlier major studies of presidential religious rhetoric that claimed such language had a powerful force to it. A final experiment was designed to explore the causal dynamics behind the findings of the case studies. Why does religious rhetoric fail? Is it because it is simply unpersuasive? Or, rather, is the explanation found in the context (i.e. crisis situations) in which such rhetoric has appeared? The experiment was designed to decide between these two competing hypotheses. Student participants were given sample speeches containing either religious or secular arguments for a political goal. Treatments were designed to accurately mimic where and how religious rhetoric has historically been used. Results support the former interpretation; exposure to a religious policy argument has no effect on an individual's opinion. Exposure to secular rhetoric is slightly more impactful but, regardless, ideology and partisan affiliation are far more important than either type when it comes to explaining opinions. The religious dimensions of presidential leadership have been a constant throughout history, becoming even more visible in the post-war period. This dissertation greatly furthers our understanding of this important subject. It is valuable for anyone interested in either the challenges of presidential power or in the role that religion plays in contemporary American politics.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Katznelson, Ira I.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 6, 2012