Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Podium, The Pulpit, and the Republicans

The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans: How Presidential Candidates Use Religious Language in American Political Debate
Frederick Stecker, Praeger, 2011, 229 pp., ISBN 978-0-313-38250-5, $44.95 (Hardcover).
This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:
Catholic Library World, Mar 2012, Vol. 82 Issue 3, p.232.
Charles Lemert, a noted sociologist, asks the question in the foreword of The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans by Frederick Stecker, “Why is religion still so powerful a force in late modern social life such a long time after Marx declared it the opiate of the people” (ix). Despite ideas to the contrary, religion continues to be a powerful force around the world. Lemert notes that “from the rise of evangelical Christianity in the 1990s to the perplexing prominence of Islamic fundamentalism in the 2000s, few corners of global politics have not been assaulted by very often ill-informed commentary on the role of religion in society” (ix). The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans by Frederick Stecker is both timely and informative as we prepare for another presidential election in the United States.
Stecker is an Episcopal minister and a scholar of religion and culture. He holds doctorates from Bangor Theological Seminary and from the Institute of the Study of violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. Stecker analyses two major topics in this book: “the convergence of politics, religion, and national identity” in this country since the 1970s. He also analyses “the ideological warfare conducted on the unconscious, using nuanced language by political parties in order to gain power” (xiii).  Stecker uses the conceptual model found in George Lakeoff’s “seminal” work, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, to analyze how conservatives and liberals use religious metaphors to engineer victories at the polls. Stecker also accepts and applies Lakeoff’s idea that liberals and conservatives have different parent orientations which affects how they govern politically. Lakeoff claims that conservatives hold to a “strict parent” orientation; while liberals have a “nurturing parent” orientation.
 Chapter one analyzes Lakeoff’s ideas and how it is helpful to analyze the writings and speeches of the New Right. It also “examines the distinction between critical and uncritical (literalist) interpretations of scripture and the impact of each” (xix). Chapter two “traces” the origins of the neo-conservatives and chapter three discusses the origins of the Religious Right. Chapter four examines why the Political Right and the Religious Right merged. The rest of the chapters examine transcripts from the presidential debates in 2000, 2004, 2008. Stecker uses the religious metaphors and parental orientation theories of Lakeoff to examine these speeches. It is illuminating how certain religious metaphors are used over and over by the political parties. For example, the number of times George Bush used the word, liberty, was enormous. Another important insight was how Bush/Cheney used fear to manipulate voters’ emotions. Reading many of the transcripts of the debates showed clearly how the presidential contenders used code words to manipulate the American people.
The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans is a timely book that shows how political parties uses religious rhetoric to muddy the waters. Debates are rarely civil discourses that encourage engagement with the important issues of the day. They tend to consist of sound bites that appeal to emotions, instead of reason; and use negative characterizations that destroy their opponent. For example, the Republicans frequent attempt to portray the Democrat candidate as liberal and the Democrats ploy of identifying conservatives as fundamentalist. The book makes an excellent contribution to the continuing debate how politicians use religion for their political advantage.

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