The Religious Language of Republicans and Democrats

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:

Unsplash | Brad Dodson

“The words ‘pro’ and ‘life’ are both positive on their own, but part of what it means to be a partisan is that you have acquired the right set of intuitive reactions to hundreds of words and phrases. Your elephant knows which way to lean in response to terms such as pro-life, and as your elephant sways back and forth throughout the day, you find yourself liking and trusting the people around you who sway in sync with you.” (italics in the original).

It is this same emotional response that makes quoting the biblical mandate to “care for the least of these” so successful for Democratic politicians. Over the past few elections, many Democrats have branded themselves as the party that cares for the poor and vulnerable, and have couched their policies in religious language.

So, even though many of us claim to be rational voters, we are almost surely entrenched in decades of religious and political language that has been used by religious activists and politicians to sway our “elephants,” and led us to turn our backs on others’ elephants. Said another way, activists and politicians with the resources and platforms to have their voices heard have defined what it means to be a “Christian voter,” largely without anyone even noticing how they’ve done so. However, coupling religious language with partisan agendas has done little more than solidify either-or frames of reference that then serve as “stones” to be thrown at other Christian voters in the opposing political party.

All of this is especially important as we prepare for the upcoming presidential debates, and it may serve us all well to pay attention to our “elephants” – our gut feelings that sway how we feel about a topic and a candidate that stems from these decades of conditioning. Similar to the phrase “pro-life” – which stirs up so many automated frames of reference – we might pay attention to how our elephants respond to candidates speaking about “caring for the least of these,” the “inherent worth” of every person, our “moral obligations,” the purpose and dignity of all of us as “God’s children,” and how candidates frame our “God-given rights” – whether that be a right to free healthcare or a “right to keep and bear arms.” All of these turns of phrase have a religious history and meaning, and are used often intentionally to elicit an emotional response.

Perhaps by simply recognizing that politicians are not meant to be theologians, Christian voters can drop their stones, dismount their “elephants,” and find an alternative to the partisan divide.

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