By Brittany Bramlett, University of Georgia and Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
“God Talk” has become an important emerging area of scholarship in the study of religion and politics. Books by Domke and Coe and Djupe and Calfano have found that use of religious language both overt and covert are employed frequently by politicians at all levels of government. This language is often used as a type of dog-whistle, so that elected officials can give a subtle nod to certain religious groups without alienating other constituencies, but can be overt as well. But how often does this happen on Twitter?
We scraped the tweets of all active members of Congress from January of 2017 through April of 2018 to get a sense of just how much God Talk is occurring on social media. We were looking for evidence of differences between Republicans and Democrats as well as men and women. It’s important to note up front that Democrats tend to tweet more frequently than Republicans, which is illustrated in the top bar below visualizing tweets sent out in March of 2018.
However, what is notable is that despite the fact that Republican men only send a third of all tweets, they represent nearly three quarters of all tweets containing the word “God,” which we consider to be the most generic and least sectarian religious reference in American politics. On the other hand, Democrats tend to shy away from using this generic religious term. While 60% of all tweets sent out during that month were from Democrats, just 21.6% of all tweets containing “God” in the month came from Democrats. Just another piece of evidence to support the growing God Gap.
But, we wanted to get a bit more specific. So we looked not only at the word God, but also other religious terms. We chose “faith” because it is also non-sectarian and fairly innocuous, alongside two terms that are specifically Christian in orientation – Bible and Jesus.
As can be quickly surmised, generic God talk is much more pervasive than specific Christian language. God is invoked much more frequently than faith, but both terms are used much more often than “Bible” and “Jesus.” About one in ten thousand tweets sent by Democratic men contained the term “Bible” – which is close to the same frequency as their tweeting about Jesus.
We also wanted to see if any politicians moved past generic religious terminology and were direct in their usage of Christian imagery. The way that we did that was to look for instances of members of Congress tweeting verses from the Bible. Unsurprisingly, this was a rare occurrence. But, there are two members of Congress who went out of their way to mention the Bible – often on a daily basis.
Rep. John Shimkus and Senator Marco Rubio were far and away the most likely to use Bible verses in their tweets. In the case of Rubio he was accused of using his daily Bible verses as a way to subtly take a jab at President Donald Trump. Shimkus has been engaging in this behavior for years and seems to have sidestepped any controversy about his tweeting behavior. In total, the members who tweeted Bible verses were all Republicans and nine out of ten of them were men.
Overall, members of Congress don’t tweet about religious matters that frequently. When they do invoke spiritual things, they almost always do it in a generic and more inclusive way. Democrats shy away from religious language – but Republicans are more likely to invoke God Talk on the digital stage.
Brittany Bramlett teacher at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She can be contacted via her personal website.