Note: It’s my honor and joy that my former student, Whitney Harper, guest authored the post below. Whitney was a student of mine when I taught in Scotland in 2009, and we have remained close ever since. She now is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.
In the United States we like to claim separation of church and state, but the reality is much more complicated. Although our minds may automatically be drawn to the Religious Right as the main violator of this separation, research has shown Democratic candidates have taken note, and are also making use of religious language to frame their stances.
In contrast to Republican candidates’ overt use of religious language to frame debates surrounding abortion, Christianity’s role in the public sphere, and “family values,” Democratic candidates tend to take a more subtle approach, being careful not to alienate non-Christian voters, but also making sure to use phrases that will perk up the ears of Christians. They tend to use religious language to frame care for the poor, healthcare reform, and concern for racism, sexism, and the environment; often centering their religious rhetoric on Jesus’ petition to care for “the least of these.” Although these references aren’t as explicit as Republicans,’ they have started to persuade more Christian voters to the Democratic Party, building up the more recently established “Religious Left.”
How has religious language been so successful not only in the Republican Party, but also in a party that has largely taken a more “secular” stance? Recent research can be especially helpful in answering this question.
A body of psychological research consistently shows that voters make their decisions primarily based on a “gut” feeling, and that religious language is especially helpful for speaking to this intuitive sense. For example, in his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines moral intuitions in relation to religion and politics in the United States. He argues that, when it comes to religion and politics – and really any of our decision-making – “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (italics in the original). By this, Haidt means that as much as people want to believe they make decisions rationally and consciously, the reality is that almost all of our reasoning is unconscious and driven by instinct and emotion. He elaborates:
“The central metaphor . . . is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior” (italics in the original).
In other words, most of the choices we make – including how religious we are, who we vote for, and how we make moral decisions – are driven by emotion. We then create reasons and justifications after the fact. We feel to our very core our beliefs are the correct ones – to the point that words can’t fully explain why, as much as we may try – and this strong urge makes it easier to dismiss other views. This is what psychologists call the confirmation bias: the act of ignoring information that contradicts what we already think and seeking out information that reaffirms what we already believe.
This strong emotional gut-level reaction is what makes the coupling of religious and political language so powerful in a voter’s decision making. For example, for several decades the pro-life stance has been drilled into the majority of conservative Christians’ minds as the stance for Christians to look for when voting. Over time, this has strengthened Christian voters’ instinctive responses to “pro-life” language. Haidt continues:Continue reading