A Look at the Excessive Hypothesis of the Pharisee Effect: The "Ten Commandments Judge" in the Alabama Republican Primary

By Powell, Larry; Neiva, Eduardo et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, June 2008 | Go to article overview

A Look at the Excessive Hypothesis of the Pharisee Effect: The "Ten Commandments Judge" in the Alabama Republican Primary


Powell, Larry, Neiva, Eduardo, Fuller, Jessica, North American Journal of Psychology


The Pharisee Effect is a phenomenon that occurs when religious appeals in political disputes go too far, thus leading to a backlash and voter rejection of the candidate. This study analyzed the unsuccessful 2006 Alabama gubernatorial campaign of Roy Moore--the "Ten Commandments Judge"--whose campaign relied heavily on religious-based arguments. Moore's reliance on religious appeals was the basis of his candidacy in the Alabama Republican Primary. However, this paper argues that Moore pushed his religious appeals too far; thus his religiosity was not an effective basis for a politically persuasive strategy. Further, applying concepts of game theory, this paper argues that religiosity contributed to the defeat of Moore because of the excessiveness hypothesis of the Pharisee Effect, i.e., he exceeded audience expectations regarding the role of religious arguments in politics. Moore's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign suggested there are limits to personal religion as an element for a political strategy, while supporting the contention that excessive use of religious appeals can work against a candidate.

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Scholars have focused considerable attention on the role of religion in American politics, sparked no doubt by the documented successes that many candidates (particularly Republicans) had when they anchored their campaign around religious themes (Cohen, 2004; Giroux, 2005; Kriegel, 1996). The relationship of religion and politics is not really new. Edel (1987) noted that religion has played a role in American politics that goes back to the founding of the nation. Meacham (2006) and Holmes (2006) argued that religion was a major issue for the founding fathers. Darsey (1997) argued that the relationship goes back even further to "the belief of the early Puritan settlers that America was the New Israel, God's new Chosen People" (p. 39). Gaustad (1987) argued that the founding fathers viewed religion as playing a major role in preserving the social mores of the new nation. The Christian Bible, in particular, has had a major influence on the life of the nation (Miller, 1956; Tuveson, 1968) and on the nation's public discourse (Johnson, 1985; Sandeen, 1982).

More recently, evangelical Christians have been identified as an important force in political campaigns (Balmer, 2000). Ronald Reagan was perhaps the first modern Republican to see the political possibilities of these voters (Moen, 1990); since then, the political influence of the Christian Right grew and became a significant factor among Republican voters (Green & Guth, 1988; Wilcox, 1989). This influence was aided by the political activities of individuals like Jerry Falwell who used his Moral Majority organization in the 1980s to support political candidates--mostly Republicans--viewed as having a pro-Christian-God agenda (Harding, 2000; Kellstedt, Green, Guth & Smidt, 1994; Oldfield, 1996; Perkin, 2000; Regnerus & Sikkink,1999; Wilcox, 1988) and supporting legislative initiatives reflecting a pro-Christian-God agenda (Feld, Rosier & Manning, 2002; Yamane, 1999). That role was duplicated by other groups and individuals, including Pat Robertson's 700 Club, NCPAC, and the current Christian Coalition (Johnson & Tamney, 1984; Kater, 1982; Kitchens & Powell, 1986; Martin, 1996; Penning, 1994). Religious groups have also been active in state primaries (McConkey & Hickman, 1997; Rozell & Wilcox, 1998), congressional campaigns (Green & Guth, 1993) and presidential elections (Manza & Brooks, 1997). Further, an increasing number of Protestant ministers have become more willing to speak to their congregations on political topics (Guth, et al., 2003), while others have turned to mobilization ("get-out-the-vote") campaigns (Green, Rozell & Wilcox, 2001; Guth, Kellstedt, Smidt & Green, 1998) or running for local offices such as school boards (Deckman, 2001; Detwiler, 2000). During the Clinton administration, religious conservatives were strong critics of the president's program and moral lapses (Bruce, 1998, 2000; Penning, 1994). …

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