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"One nation under God?": a call for secular rhetorical criticism




Lee, Kristina M., author
Dunn, Thomas R., advisor
Vasby Anderson, Karrin, committee member
Gibson, Katie, committee member
Cloud, Doug, committee member

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This dissertation explores the need for secular rhetorical criticism, an approach to rhetorical scholarship that centers questions of power, privilege, and marginalization in relation to ir/religious pluralism. I contend that such an interconnected rhetorical approach to studying religion would be beneficial in creating a more cohesive conversation within rhetorical scholarship on the relationship of religious pluralism and power. Secular rhetorical criticism is fundamentally concerned with the lives, experiences, and voices of the ir/religiously marginalized and recognizes religious nationalism as part of a hegemonic system that privileges religious homogeneity and inhibits religious pluralism. In four chapters, I demonstrate the utility of engaging in secular rhetorical criticism by offering different approaches to analyzing the implementation of the phrase "under God" into the U.S. pledge of allegiance in 1954. While the phrase "under God" in the pledge is largely framed as example unifying "American civil religion" or benign "ceremonial deism," I argue that in 1954 the pledge was transformed into a theistnormative ritual that promoted a Christian nationalist political imaginary while containing Atheists and secularism. In chapter one, I draw on secular rhetorical criticism to urge scholars to be self-reflective of how their own scholarly language and practices maintain religious hegemonies. Specifically, I point to how "under God" as "civil religion" perpetuates the Myth of Religious Tolerance and I offer the conception of theistnormativity as a more critical descriptor for the fusion of belief in God and national identity. In the next chapter, I urge scholars to utilize secular rhetorical criticism as a lens for considering who is contained and negated by theistnormative texts. By analyzing advocates' justification of the new pledge, I demonstrate how religious and political leaders utilized the rhetorical strategy of prophetic dualism to frame the new pledge as a way to contain Atheists and Secularism. In chapter three, I reflect on how scholars engaging in secular rhetorical criticism need to utilize non-traditional methods to analyze the voices of the ir/religiously marginalized. I demonstrate how the gossip method can be used to speculate about how evidence from archived letters and newspapers suggests political leaders knowingly mischaracterized who supported and opposed the change to the pledge. Finally, I urge scholars to utilize secular rhetorical criticism to disrupt the assumption that the contemporary tensions between secularists and Christian nationalists emerged in the 1960s-1970s. By analyzing the political vocabularies of those writing to President Eisenhower and Congress in response to the new pledge in 1954, I demonstrate how supporters viewed the change as a confirmation of a Christian nationalist political imaginary while those who opposed it saw the new pledge as a threat to democracy from the perspective of a secular political imaginary. Using secular rhetorical criticism to guide my analysis of each chapter, I argue that in 1954 the pledge was transformed into a theistnormative ritual that advanced a Christian nationalist political imaginary while containing Atheists and secularism as part of a larger spiritual-industrial complex. This dissertation looks to the history of the 1950s to reflect on how, in 2022, Christian nationalists are establishing a new spiritual-industrial complex. Rhetorical scholars need an approach to studying rhetoric that will challenge and disrupt this undemocratic movement that undermines the values of religious freedom, tolerance, and equality.


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civil religion
pledge of allegiance
Cold War
Christian nationalism


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