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University of Delaware

Trump tries civil religion to unite America after mass shootings

Professor discusses presidential device used to the bridge partisan divide: Language that asserts the sanctity of the country’s values
6-Aug-2019 4:15 PM EDT, by University of Delaware

In an effort to bring America together following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Donald Trump deployed civil religious rhetoric: Language that asserts the sanctity of the country’s values and traditions.

Professor Flavio Hickel Jr., who studies civil religion and how presidents respond to mass shootings, said Trump’s speech addressing the nation was stocked with this language.

“He spent quite a bit of time talking about who we are as a people and how this crime runs counter to that vision – and how the proposals he suggested would help to better realize that vision,” said Hickel, a professor of political science and international relations.

Numerous presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, have successfully used civil religious rhetoric to bring the country together, either in times of crisis or to sell their agenda to the public. In July, he published a study in the journal “Congress & The Presidency” examining how presidents have used civil religion throughout history. He describes civil religion as a set of symbols that convey the idea that America is exceptional and that our continued success requires honoring a set of sacred principles established during the founding.

“It’s not inherently wedded to an ideology,” he said. “It says that there’s something sacred about our history and traditions and that bad things will happen if we violate them. For example, Lincoln argued that the civil war was divine punishment for the sin of slavery, while FDR and Reagan both argued that economic crises were the result of betraying our sacred traditions.”

Hickel answered some questions regarding his recent study as well as an upcoming one that looks specifically at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

After reading your research, it was clear that Donald Trump was deploying every tactic in the civil religion playbook on Monday. What did you see?

My initial reaction is that he was drawing upon our shared sense of identity to argue that white supremacy and these kinds of violent crimes are antithetical to America – and that we should overcome our differences and unite around not only our shared grief at these events but also to use this tragedy as an opportunity to unite around our shared values. All of which is exactly what you would expect a president to do as part of his role as “Mourner in Chief” or “Head Priest of American civil religion.” And if you look at Trump’s remarks in isolation, I think he did that well.

Your research argues that, historically, civil religion was used to bridge a partisan divide. Has the “agree because we’re all Americans” notion continued with Donald Trump?

No. What sometimes ends up happening is you’re really wedding a clear partisan issue to these principals, and then people rebel. If you’re a Republican today you’re hearing Trump and he’s wedding this civil religious rhetoric to “Build the Wall” and they say, “Yeah, I feel even stronger about him.” But if you’re a Democrat your response is, “That’s not my vision of America. I don’t think you’re living up to these principles and we’re going to rebel even stronger.”

How does Donald Trump use it?

It’s not articulated as well by Trump because, frankly, he’s just not a good public speaker. He doesn’t have the eloquence of language that Obama had, or FDR, or Lincoln.

I have a new study coming out that looks at specific Trump speeches to demonstrate that he is doing civil religion. What we’re seeing is that he’s using this civil religious “jeremiad” – an older rhetorical style which says we’ve fallen from God’s good grace because we’ve betrayed the covenant, our promise to God. The only way to return to American exceptionalism is to rededicate ourselves. We argue that “Make America Great Again” reflects that rhetorical style.

How did your most recent study come about?

When I was a grad student, I was studying the Tea Party and trying to understand what they were doing. I argued that the Tea Party was this civil religious revival movement. Some have talked about drawing a distinction between civil religion and Christian nationalism, which says to be an American, you must be Christian. The Tea Party had motions in that direction. They were trying to defend a vision of America that was articulated by Ronald Reagan. They saw it as under assault by Obama and socialism and all these code words. And although the Tea Party itself has sort of withered away and died at this point, Trump is their guy. He’s the direct effect of that. He has moved in that direction. 

Which side of the aisle uses civil religion more?

Republicans. It appeals to Republican patriotism and love for the military and service. You see it with some Republicans more than others. During the 2016 nominations, I wasn’t rooting for anyone, but academically I hoped Marco Rubio would be the candidate, because that guy was totally trying to channel Reagan and be the next great civil religious orator. 

What are the most recent examples where the use of civil religion has worked and presidents were able to use it to bring America together?

What inspired me to get into studying this stuff was reading things by FDR and Lyndon Johnson. One of the things was the rhetoric they used to bring about powerful social change. I would also argue Reagan was somewhat successful, even though, policy wise, not as successful as FDR and LBJ.  George W. Bush used it during 9/11. Obama made an effort, particular during the Newtown shootings. What was interesting about the Obama years is that we have this real contest between these two civil religious visions that are butting heads constantly. Obama versus the Tea Party in 2008 that turns into Clinton versus Trump in 2016, and I think we’re going to see it again in 2020.

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