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. …