Dog Whistle Religion: Religion’s Subtle Use in this Presidential Election

By Patrick M. Johnson

Pence and Kaine in the Vice Presidential Debate

America is a secular country founded on religious freedom, in which citizens are free to live out their moral or religious values without infringement or imposition from the government.  OR America is a Christian nation that should live up to its Christian values.  These were the two conflicting messages sent by Vice Presidential Candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence during the recent Vice Presidential Debate.

Despite Pence being a conservative, born again Christian (known for his passage and support of the anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Bill in his home state) and the Republican party in previous elections (and even in the primaries from this election cycle) placing a huge emphasis on religion, most notably evangelical Christianity, religion has been barely mentioned since the conventions in the late summer. The notable exception being talking about “Islamic Terrorism” which strips Islam from its religious tenets and instead relates it only to violence.

At the end of the Vice Presidential debate, moderator Elaine Quijano asked both candidates to discuss times in their long political careers in which their religious beliefs conflicted with their duties as public representatives.  While their answers were interesting and enlightening, what it particularly interesting is that this is one of the first times that this question of religiosity has been specifically and directly invoked during this post-primary election race.

Despite the lack of direct acknowledgement of religious beliefs, there are numerous times in which the two Presidential candidates have invoked it subtly, particularly during the first presidential debate that occurred at the end of September.  Throughout the rest of this blog post, I wish to think about the ways in which religion, white not at the forefront of this election, is playing an essential and crucial role behind the scenes in the strategizing of the two campaigns in order to speak to the general public of the United States and play on the religious ideals that have formed the moral code of many people in this country. Religion is drawn upon in two general ways.  The first is to make the association that (Christian) religious beliefs are equated with family values, honesty, and a solid ethical code.  The second is that Islam is related to oppression of women, violence, and is a threat to US ideals. Through looking at the first Presidential debate, I will be analyzing both the explicit and implicit references to these religious connotations and the ways that the candidates are using religion in order to manipulate public perception about themselves.

Despite not having an overly religious public persona, Hillary Clinton has been reasserting her strong religious beliefs throughout this campaign, even when not explicitly asked to discuss her religious beliefs.  In fact, during this election she is being considered the most religious presidential candidate, a drastic change from previous Democratic Presidential Candidates.  What is most notable about this religious rhetoric from Clinton is that it seems to be a relatively recent development as in her previous presidential campaign it was not overtly present.

Even in her DNC acceptance speech, she noted her Methodist upbringing:

“She made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith:

 ‘Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.’

 I went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, going door-to-door in New Bedford, Massachusetts on behalf of children with disabilities who were denied the chance to go to school.”

The most striking however, is a lack of specific details about her religious faith but that it is being used almost as if a substitute for values that the American pubic seem to not allot Clinton.  Often viewed as untrustworthy, cold, and a career politician who is out of touch with the American working class, her Methodist upbringing seems to be almost exclusively used to conjure up these values rather than explicitly expressing more religious values. There is little talk about specific religious influences or specific bible verses that are influential (as we see in other politicians such as Ted Cruz or Mike Pence), but rather a vague reference to an almost generic Protestant religion that is able to resonate with most people.

In the first debate, even though she did not specifically discuss her religion, Clinton invoked religion a few times – specifically when addressing problems of racism in the United States.  When speaking of Black communities and issues with police violence, Clinton made sure to reference the communities of faith in these Black communities, as if that would provide a reason for people to think of these communities as good people.  Here, religion is being used as almost the reverse of Dog Whistle politics (the nasty practice of using coded language to make prejudiced commentary) to use a type of code about what makes a decent human being.

This is most notable because this was invoked in a response to Trump claiming that the Black Community is living in despair and deplorable conditions.

“CLINTON: Well, I’ve heard — I’ve heard Donald say this at his rallies, and it’s really unfortunate that he paints such a dire negative picture of black communities in our country.


CLINTON: You know, the vibrancy of the black church, the black businesses that employ so many people, the opportunities that so many families are working to provide for their kids. There’s a lot that we should be proud of and we should be supporting and lifting up.”

Clinton referenced faith one more time in the debate in regards to issues with police brutality against the black community.

“Look, one murder is too many. But it is important that we learn about what has been effective. And not go to things that sound good that really did not have the kind of impact that we would want. Who disagrees with keeping neighborhoods safe?

But let’s also add, no one should disagree about respecting the rights of young men who live in those neighborhoods. And so we need to do a better job of working, again, with the communities, faith communities, business communities, as well as the police to try to deal with this problem” – Clinton

When these two ideas are used in conversation with each other, it is clear that Clinton is using religion as a code word for having good, American values.

Up until now, I have focused mainly on Clinton, and that is because she largely uses these vague references to religion more than Trump does; however, that is not to say that Trump did not use any at all.  When he did use them, although, it was with a very different connotation. Instead of using religion to foster warm and positive feelings, the way that Trump played on religious ideals was to create fear and anger.  While Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has been well documented throughout this entire election, the first debate showed that it has become an essential backbone of his worldview and, potentially, that of his supporters.  When discussing how Clinton did not have the “stamina” to be present (ignoring that he was asked about his original statement that she didn’t have the presidential look), he stated:

“You have to be able to negotiate our trade deals. You have to be able to negotiate, that’s right, with Japan, with Saudi Arabia. I mean, can you imagine, we’re defending Saudi Arabia? And with all of the money they have, we’re defending them, and they’re not paying? All you have to do is speak to them. Wait. You have so many different things you have to be able to do, and I don’t believe that Hillary has the stamina.” – Trump

While these kinds of general and vague insults are something we have come to expect from Trump, the interesting thing is that he decides to land on Saudi Arabia, a Muslim nation, for his extended example instead of any other country.  Now, while this could just be a coincidence, I think that it holds with it many connotations.  The first is that this is a dangerous country that we are defending – something that is drawn straight from much of his anti-Muslim rhetoric and a message that will resonate with his supporters.  However, I believe that there is a deeper layer here, which is that he  is trying to play on the additional negative stereotype that Muslim Nations do not value or respect women.  While trying to, on the face of it, shift his sexist remark, he here was cleverly creating a connotation with this negative stereotype of a religion in order to further discredit Clinton due to her gender and to cast doubt in this minds of the public of the idea of a woman being to negotiate deals.

In the second debate, the only main time religion was referenced was when discussing Trump’s proposed ban of Muslim immigration and a possible religious test, but due to the raucous nature of the debate this is not necessarily surprising – especially because much of the debate was just personal attacks lobbed at both candidates from the other.  Trump did draw upon anti-Muslim rhetoric one time in this debate, however, that is very interesting and that was when he was defending his degrading remarks about that had been leaked just days prior to this debate.  During his explanation of why it shouldn’t be taken seriously, he referenced ISIS as being a bigger problem in the world – in a way that not only seemed to be a diversionary tactic but one that specifically would conjure up feelings against a certain group of religious people – as Trump rarely feels the need to separate ISIS from the majority of Muslim individuals.

“No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.

You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.

And they look and they see. Can you imagine the people that are, frankly, doing so well against us with ISIS? And they look at our country and they see what’s going on.

Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.” – Trump

What is also interesting in this exchange is that Trump’s religion was never mentioned and called into question, despite the fact that many of his statements would go against the religious beliefs of many of his supporters – including his running mate, Mike Pence.

While neither candidate may be overtly religious, what is clear to me after watching this election thus far is that even when one is not religious, religion has many anticipated values associated with it and can be called upon when needed in the public eye – either to foster good feelings or to try to create divisive ones.

With only a few weeks left before the election, and mere days before the final debate, it will be interesting to see if religion continues to be used as one of this campaign years Dog Whistles.






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