The relationship between rhetoric and religion is fourfold: (1) rhetoric is a tool used by religious groups; (2) political rhetoric draws upon religious language; (3) religious systems contribute to the discursive constructions of their adherents’ worldviews; and (4) religious traditions contribute to rhetorical theory and practice.
Religious systems use rhetoric as a tool for interfacing with outside groups and communicating with adherents. Interfacing with outsiders includes efforts to share the message of the faith but also to create relationships with other groups. In the case of Christianity, the imperative to evangelize is especially strong, and Christian groups have been innovative in their rhetorical practices. Long a staple of Christian rhetoric, the sermonic genre has become indispensable in the American context – used by the evangelists of the First and Second Great Awakenings, including Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, as well as twentieth-century evangelists, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, and Jimmy Swaggart. These twentieth-century preachers were among the first to appropriate media technologies – film, radio, television, and the Internet – for religious purposes. In the Catholic church, the pastoral letter remains an important tool for communicating with believers, and Carol Jablonsky (1989) explains that American bishops have used these letters to instruct members in the doctrine and practices of the faith.
Rhetoric and religion interact in the political context as political leaders draw upon religious language, but also as religious leaders assert influence over public policy matters. Roderick Hart (1977) has argued that in the United States, church and state have arrived at an implicit contract, which he calls “civic piety,” that is held stable by rhetorical practice. Civic piety rhetoric calls upon a nonsectarian God who watches over the United States, but it otherwise maintains a distinction between church and state. Presidential inaugurals typically demonstrate civic piety, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s use of religious language calling for a “holy war” against recession and John F. Kennedy’s statement that “on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” Steve Goldzwig (1987) has countered that in addition to this “official” civic piety, there are “unofficial” public theologies that explicitly use the language, imagery, and values of specific religious traditions to influence public policy. He cites Jerry Falwell and Archbishop Oscar Romero as examples, but that list could also include William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Caesar Chavez. Similarly, Erik Doxtader (2001) claims that Christian rhetoric, specifically the Kairos Document, contributed to bringing about the reconciliation that ended the system of apartheid in South Africa.
Religious systems also have rhetorical value as they discursively constitute worldviews for their adherents. Kenneth Burke (1961) notes that because words for the natural world are commonly used to explain the supernatural and because the reverse is also true, the ways that we see our natural world are always influenced by our theologies. For instance, Burke argues that the cycle of guilt, sacrifice, and redemption that is central to the Christian Bible also inheres in our discourse. The existence of the hortatory negative in language (the “thou-shalt-not”) makes sin possible, which leads to guilt and the need for redemption and sacrifice. In their analysis of Hindu nationalism in India, Roy and Rowland (2003) suggest that this type of mythic structure is not unique to cultures influenced by Christianity. They note how Hindu nationalist identity is premised on a mythic structure that pits the great heroes of that tradition against the evils it identifies as inherent to Islam.
Finally, religious traditions contribute to rhetorical theory and practice. Rhetorical critics have acknowledged the contributions made by the scriptures themselves, as well as the writings of religious thinkers such as St Augustine, St Anselm, Søren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoffer. James Darsey (1997), for instance, argues that the practice of radical rhetoric in the United States has been influenced by the prophetic tradition. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures and contemporary radicals share a sense of mission, an attempt to hold listeners to a sacred principle, and an uncompromising posture. In a related vein, scholars have noted the persistence of the “jeremiad” in the tradition of American public address. The contemporary political jeremiad, which is heir to Puritan preaching as well as the prophetic tradition, holds up principles that are sacred to the community, expresses disappointment in the community’s failure to live according to these principles, and then calls audience members to return to principled living (Murphy 1990). Rhetoric scholars have primarily attended to the contributions that the Jewish and Christian traditions make to rhetorical theory, but other religions have much to offer as well.
- Burke, K. (1961). The rhetoric of religion. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Darsey, J. (1997). The prophetic tradition and radical rhetoric in America. New York: New York University Press.
- Doxtader, E. (2001). Making rhetorical history in a time of transition: The occasion, constitution, and representation of South African reconciliation. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 4, 223–260.
- Goldzwig, S. (1987). A rhetoric of public theology: The religious rhetor and public policy. Southern Speech Communication Journal, 52, 128–150.
- Hart, R. P. (1977). The political pulpit. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
- Hart, R. P., & Pauley, J. L., II (2005). The political pulpit revisited. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
- Jablonsky, C. J. (1989). Aggiornamento and the American Catholic bishops: A rhetoric of institutional continuity and change. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 75, 416–432.
- Medhurst, M. J. (1991). Rhetorical dimensions in Biblical criticism: Beyond style and genre. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 77, 214–250.
- Murphy, J. M. (1990). “A time of shame and sorrow”: Robert F. Kennedy and the American jeremiad. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, 401–414.
- O’Leary, S. D. (1994). Arguing the apocalypse: A theory of millennial rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Roy, A., & Rowland, R. C. (2003). The rhetoric of Hindu nationalism: A narrative of mythic redefinition. Western Journal of Communication, 67, 225–248.