“New Books on the Edge” with Leslie Dorrough Smith

LS Book CoverRighteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America 

What sparked your initial interest in exploring what drives the “political power” of the New Christian Right (NCR) and Concerned Women for America (CWA)? How are such groups commonly approached and analyzed in scholarly discourse and the larger public imagination?

As with many scholars, I suppose, my interest in politically active conservative Christianity (a.k.a, the NCR) is at least somewhat autobiographical. I grew up in a social environment steeped in conservative evangelicalism, and so the claims made by these groups – namely, the valorization of the entire spectrum of conservative politics, including a religiously-rooted patriotism, traditional gender roles, and the superiority of the heterosexual, nuclear family – were not new to me.  In a very direct sense, then, my interest in these groups began when, as an undergraduate religious studies major, I was seeking to better understand the appeal of conservative evangelical ideas and their political impact.

But after I read many of the major scholarly works on the significance of such groups, I can’t say that I was satisfied with the answers I found. Many scholars writing at that time on the NCR (and conservative Protestantism more generally) emphasized how rigid, formulaic, and dichotomous such groups were, not to mention destructive and irrational. While I was personally sympathetic with some of these assessments, there were many things that disturbed me about how those conclusions were drawn in the name of academics.

On the one hand, as a person well-acquainted with conservative religious thought, I saw many ideas within that culture fluctuate, morph, and otherwise dramatically change in ways that the “rigid fundamentalist” model was unable to account for adequately.  On the other hand, I was quite astonished at how many scholars would simply throw out liberal religious arguments to combat conservative ones, and then pass this off as academic analysis. What I concluded was that these debates are often more about reinforcing one’s theological position rather than finding actual connections and parallels between phenomena. Because I consider the latter to be the foundation of analysis, I was dissatisfied with scholarship that forced the reader to presume a certain level of religious sympathy to study religion.

By the time that I was conducting my own research on CWA (which is one of the nation’s largest conservative public policy organizations for women, and is a prominent member of the NCR), other books were just beginning to emerge that questioned whether the NCR is as homogenous as once thought. This was a move in the right direction, but despite this, almost all of these works still treated the NCR as a rigid, dichotomous, absolutist movement. My interest in critical theory helped me to shift my thinking from these positions to one where I could start asking about identities as social strategies rather than static entities. That helped me to consider what groups like CWA have at stake in portraying themselves (and their opponents) in the shifting, fluctuating ways that they do, such as when CWA decries feminism at one moment in time but then calls itself a “real” feminist movement later on. It was examples like this that helped create the chaos rhetoric model that is the philosophical foundation of the book.

As I use the term, chaos rhetoric is a type of discourse that is especially good at creating political activism. More specifically, the term refers to a mode of speech that uses highly emotional symbols to evoke a strong response from the reader/listener and, ultimately, to impact public sentiment. One could simply call chaos rhetoric a fear tactic, but I thought this was too simplistic a term, since I was more interested in looking at how, when, and under what circumstances CWA chose to portray certain things as chaotic or fearful rather than presuming that those emotions were self-evident or natural. As I say in the book, it’s one thing to be afraid of a car accident, but an entirely different thing to locate the same level of fear in your child’s sexual education course. In other words, what is deemed frightening or threatening at one moment is often a non-event several years or even months later – it all depends on how the political and cultural winds are blowing.

So my approach towards the NCR and CWA, more specifically, has been to presume just the opposite of what most scholarship suggests.  This is true not only on the issue of whether CWA is rigid and unchanging, but also whether it’s at all unique.  My argument is that all of the rhetorical techniques that CWA uses are actually quite mundane when we compare them to any other group attempting public persuasion.  Actually, one major point of the book is to demonstrate how very effective – and normal – the tactics of CWA really are.  Because so much of the scholarship on the NCR is devoted to casting the larger movement in an aberrant light, this is also another area where my research departs from the pack.

What did your research reveal about the rhetorical and symbolic strategies that sustain and maintain the nationalist agendas, social dominance and widespread public appeal of such groups? Can you say a bit about the theory and method behind/grounding your approach and analysis in this work?

My research hinges on the idea that the popularity of the NCR more generally, and CWA in particular, cannot be found in any sort of special theology or claim. Rather, my argument is that groups like CWA are so politically effective because their chaos rhetoric draws upon longstanding and popular symbols linking conservative religion with national survival– like mom, America, and apple pie, so to speak – that tug at the heartstrings of many people who hear or read them. On the surface, this may seem fairly obvious to most people who study these groups, but what may be much less clear is how the symbols used to evoke these emotions are connected, organized, and deployed in very specific circumstances to elicit very specific effects. That’s where my focus lies. One great example is how CWA will often symbolically portray the nation as a child who is abused or threatened by liberals and their harmful agenda. Whether or not there is factual evidence for this claim is, of course, a matter of opinion, but this particular symbol of the child-as-nation is typically deployed only when certain political issues arise (gay marriage among them), but on other issues (national sovereignty, for instance) is abandoned. I was interested in how such groups not only select, but also arrange, their symbolic lexicons.

Nationalism is really the backdrop of the entire book. One of my main claims is that although the NCR bears the name “Christian,” and although CWA is clear to define itself as an explicitly religious organization, both of them exist with the sole aim to create a very particular sort of America. In other words, their ultimate aim is not so much religious as it is nationalist, and any religious claim that appears to take center stage is actually important only insomuch as it functions to create a specific sort of nation.

The symbols that are often deployed in CWA’s chaos rhetoric constantly warn of the threat of the homosexual, the liberal, and the feminist to the nation (which, again, is often portrayed as a vulnerable child, among other images). I found a lot of resonance between CWA’s symbolic work and the scholarship of Judith Butler, whose theoretical models punctuate Righteous Rhetoric. In Butler’s work on gender and social norms, she argues that one of the ways in which certain groups normalize their own identities is by pathologizing their opponents in very distinct ways (which, by extension, makes their own positions appear desirable), and also by authorizing their claims through arguments on their normalcy or alignment with common sense. Both of these are things that characterize CWA’s rhetorical activity. For instance, CWA is constantly warning the public about the dangers of liberal elitists and their intention to misrepresent the will of the “the people,” thereby hijacking the government with their ill-intended policies. As with all chaos rhetoric, whether there is factual weight to this claim is almost entirely irrelevant, for what really matters is whether that image is persuasive.

How does Righteous Rhetoric connect with the work you’re currently doing on identity and identification with the Culture on the Edge Collective?

I see the work of Culture on the Edge as an interrogation of the ways that we talk about reality and our social roles within it. Rather than being singular or simple, I hope our efforts demonstrate that identity is an inherently political activity; how we see the world (or how it is portrayed to us) is always historically and culturally contingent.

Righteous Rhetoric attempts that same exercise. It is a book about how CWA’s identity is not a singular thing, but is just as shifting and multiplicitous as the political situation demands. It’s also about the identity categories that scholars use to describe the NCR, and why their own rather homogeneous understandings of the movement are also political statements about themselves – in other words, many scholars are personally opposed to the NCR and thus don’t hesitate to cast it in a uniquely negative light, thus implementing the same rhetorical tactics that the NCR itself uses.

So, what’s next? What projects are you currently working on and/or hope to work on in the future?

I’ve got a couple of things in the works. Presently, I’m writing on how frequently conservative women’s groups are entirely disregarded by women’s studies and gender scholars when they analyze this thing called “women’s movements.” In line with many of the same themes of Righteous Rhetoric, I find that to be a fascinating rhetorical move that reveals how the category “woman” may appear self-evident and neutral, but can, nevertheless, be a term with much political weight when scholars choose to apply it to only certain groups of women.

More long term, I have an interest in studying the rhetoric surrounding public sex scandals, particularly when those involved in the sex scandals have previously portrayed themselves as icons of conservative morality. I’m not yet sure what I’ll find there, but the way that many Americans read one’s sexual life as a barometer of one’s ability to effectively engage in government has long fascinated me, and I look forward to seeing how that project evolves.

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 “New Books on the Edge” is an ongoing blog series, which engages forthcoming manuscripts by Edge collective members.

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