Communicating in Good Faith? Dynamics of the Christian Right Agenda

By Angelia R. Wilson and Paul A. Djupe

It is an article of faith that organized interests represent members to elected officials through synchronized communication channels. They organize interests and give them a loudspeaker to government. While they are stereotyped as uniformly focused on their opposition to abortion and gay rights issues, the reality is that they need to be flexible in order to adapt to evolving policy issues, audiences, and conditions.

In a paper out now at the journal Politics & Religion, we take one of the first looks at multiple communication streams from one organization. Wilson signed up for emails from the Family Research Council late in 2007. By 2018, that passive data gathering process netted over 2,500 emails with well over 1 million substantive words to analyze with the text data packages available in R. We combined them with 5 years of press releases that FRC catalogues on its website, and then pair all of that with Congressional lobby registration data available from the Clerk of Congress (also Open Secrets).

So, what did we find? Given the centrality of abortion to the FRC and to the Christian Right, it may be surprising to see abortion come and go as the issue focus of their agenda. It is highly prominent in the debate over Obamacare and midterm elections, but then the issue appears to take a back seat during Obama’s second term. By the 2016 general election, abortion reappears in significant concentrations. The most recent spike in the abortion rhetoric is in early 2018. This seems to reflect the events marking 45 years since the Roe v. Wade decision on January 22, 1973.

Arguably the most dramatic shift occurs for same-sex marriage. Marriage is at the top of the agenda for almost the breadth of Obama’s second term. The issue effectively hits a brick wall in late June 2015, when the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. Though FRC had focused heavily on religious liberty before, a focus on marriage was replaced with a heavy concentration on liberty.

Figure 1 – Core Issue Agenda Email Communication by Month, 2007-2018

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What is profoundly curious is that just when the emails are focusing on liberty, the press releases send liberty into hiding (see Figure 2 below). Discussions of liberty do appear from 2015 forward, but they are by far upstaged by mentions of abortion. Abortion, as we’ve noted, was not a common feature of post 2015 email communication, though it was never absent. Why are the email and press release communication streams so disparate?

Figure 2 – Core Issue Agenda Press Release Communication by Month, 2013-2018

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Our answer focuses on the demands of each constituency that organized interests cater to.  Email communication to members needs to articulate a common set of threatened interests, constantly reminding them of the need for group advocacy. There are many ways to do this effectively that have been documented across expansive literatures across many disciplines. We can look for the value of outlining a threat, identifying an outgroup, posing a beleaguered minority status, drawing out anxiety, fear, and anger, and generally highlighting the potential for loss. On the other hand, policy makers are impressed with status; they are more likely to grant access to powerful groups they agree with. Therefore, communications that target officer holders should convey majority status, confidence, expertise, agreement, and promise. In the post-2015 world, that is not opposition to same-sex marriage, but the widespread progress that religious conservatives made across the states in limiting abortion.

Our findings raise some troubling questions about a key democratic problem of organized interests – the disconnect between supporters (principals) and leadership (agents). We know that leaders exercise discretion in their communication with members and gain latitude in their political affairs from successful group maintenance, but we doubt many envisioned the empirical patterns presented in this paper. By examining internal alongside external messages, we can begin to see how communication flexibility can eventually raise questions about good faith representation. At its best, there are difficult time lags to resolve connecting member interests to elected officials. At its worst, organized interests may be playing a shell game with issue representation between members and elected officials.

Angelia R. Wilson is a Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester. She has published widely on the intersection of religion, values & politics in America with five books and several academic journal articles. An experienced political commentator on American politics, Wilson has appeared on BBC News, BBC World Service, BBC Breakfast, NewsRound, various regional radio news outlets. Further information about her work can be found at her website and on twitter

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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