God Talk: Religious Cues and Electoral Support

By Calfano, Brian Robert; Djupe, Paul A. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2009 | Go to article overview

God Talk: Religious Cues and Electoral Support


Calfano, Brian Robert, Djupe, Paul A., Political Research Quarterly


It was revealed in 2006 that Republican candidates employ a type of religious code in their political speeches. Their intention is to cue the support of religiously conservative voters without alienating other voters who may not share the same social issue agenda. The authors assess the efficacy of this GOP Code on the support of voters in specific religious traditions in an experimental setting. As expected, the code proves to be an effective cue for white evangelical Protestants but has no effect on mainline Protestants and Catholics. The form and function of the code expands our understanding of religious influence and broadens the spectrum of cues the electorate uses.

Keywords: heuristics; shared social identity; party candidates; religion; Republican code

A cursory look at the national political campaigns of the past thirty-five years suggests that Republicans are skilled at using religiously laden appeals to woo certain voters. Nixon's Southern Strategy, Lee Atwater's masterminding of the Reagan landslides, and Karl Rove's present-day efforts suggest that GOP candidates have achieved tremendous success by turning elections into referenda on their opponents' morality (Leege et al. 2002). In his book Tempting Faith, former White House staffer David Kuo (2006) revealed that Republicans use highly selective cues to appeal to religious conservatives. These cues, or what we term "the code," signal the ingroup status of a GOP candidate to white evangelical voters. However, because the cues are so specific to evangelical culture, they are intended to pass unnoticed by other voters and therefore allow GOP candidates to avoid broadcasting very conservative issue positions that might alienate more moderate voters. Thus, the code is a highly sophisticated communication strategy that is designed to appeal to an in-group without rousing an out-group's suspicions.

Linking politics and morality often requires appeals to (1) religion, because Americans are such an exceptionally religious people, and (2) religious groups, which are important organizational nodes for the electorate. We believe mat bom aspects of religion - its social and psychological aspects - are important, although the religion and politics literature has been less man concrete about how each matters in terms of candidate choice (Regnerus, Sikkink, and Smith 1999). Although each perspective suggests mat a theory incorporating both the social and psychological aspects would be particularly salutary, little progress has been made. For instance, while almost every study of Christian Right support notes that links between individuals and the movement are made through grassroots mechanisms, that is, churches (e.g., Wilcox and Larson 2006), most studies focus their measurement strategies on individual identifications (Jelen 1993; Wilcox 1989; Wilcox, Jelen, and Leege 1993). Alternately, the religious commitment perspective uses religious traditions, such as evangelical Protestant or Catholic, as an operationalization of a common set of political information conveyed to members (Green et al. 1996), an assumption mat Djupe and Gilbert (2004) demolished with their demonstration of the tremendous diversity within those categories.

Still, mere is value in thinking about religious influence from a perspective that takes religious traditions seriously and explains how religious identifications might matter - one that takes religion's social and psychological aspects into account. While it has never been clear whether a religious tradition refers to geographic, ethnic, religious belief, or other factors (Kellstedt and Green 1993), there are elements that those in religious traditions hold in common and that can serve as the basis for establishing identity. For instance, the language employed in evangelical churches to describe how God works in the world will be quite different compared to what is typically heard in Catholic or mainline Protestant churches. …

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