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Tough Love: The True Story of Neo-conservatism and the Manipulation of Religious Language

In the foreword to The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans (Praeger, hardcover, $44.95), Frederick Stecker's study of how the political right uses religious language for electoral purposes, sociologist Charles Lemert wonders why religion is “still so powerful a force in late modern social life such a long time after Marx declared it the opiate of the people.”

It wasn't always such. Prior to 1980, the wall between God and politics was far less porous. Before Ronald Reagan, there was a 50-50 chance of hearing words that invoked God in presidential speeches. By George W. Bush's second term, they were in 93.5 percent of national presidential addresses. What happened? What happened, and what Stecker explores, is the alliance between neo-conservatism and the evangelical right that germinated in the years prior to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign for the presidency. It was a hybrid devoid of principle, lubricated with emotion, and engineered to win. The language it spoke was religion.

Stecker, an Episcopal minister and adjunct professor in the Humanities Department at Colby-Sawyer College who teaches religion courses, has examined the psychological aspects of religion since 1985, offers an eye-opening linguistic analysis of the presidential debates of 2000, 2004 and 2008, shedding light on Republican tactics of selecting religious language and metaphors to signal adherence to rigid belief systems and simple, black-and-white choices in domestic and foreign policy.

“Moral and religious metaphors can impact the unconscious attitude of voters and engage repressed memories of judgment, punishment and fear,” says Stecker. “For the last 30 years,” Stecker's analysis concludes, “the Republican Party has deliberately employed blaming tactics, fear metaphors, and coded references to apocalyptic judgment to sway undecided voters.”

In the wake of September 11, 2001, says Stecker, the right has ratcheted up the tendency significantly, creating and using fear for political expediency.

The styles, beliefs and strategies of strict parent conservatives and nurturant parent progressives

In The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans, Stecker examines the nuanced political rhetoric of the 2000 through 2008 presidential campaigns; his particular focus is the debates, considered crucial in swaying undecided voters. His analysis confirms noted linguist George Lakoff's hypothesis that the religious imagery of the Republican candidates was hierarchical; the Democrats expressed more compassionate and holistic concepts of God.

“Lakoff's postulate that Republicans employ a consistently higher percentage of 'strict parent' metaphors and that Democrats employ a consistently higher percentage of 'nurturant parent' metaphors was borne out statistically,” says Stecker.

Lakoff's “nation as family” paradigm posits that the two parties and their voters differ significantly in how they believe the family—and consequently the nation—should be organized. Conservatives believe the world is full of temptation and that strict hierarchical rules must apply to all social structures, from the family to the national government. Liberals believe in the goodness of human nature, and that the family and the nation can be ordered collaboratively.

“Since 1973,” Stecker writes, “the Republican Party has spent hundreds of millions of dollars each year to field metaphors that project a 'tough love,' 'strict father' ideology in their campaign discourse. Those metaphors, through repetition, have now become imbedded in the subconscious of American voters of all types.” Stecker's analysis employs a psychodynamic template to examine the differences between conservatives and liberals and the tactics each employs to have their world view predominate in the electoral arena and the culture at large. Along the way, The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans offers a compelling history of the ascendance of conservatism from its marginal position post-Barry Goldwater to its role in the nation's psyche in today's war against terror. The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans will appeal to anyone interested in how we got to where we are today—and anyone interested in influencing the direction America will take in the future.

by Victor Gulotta, edited by College Communications

Frederick Stecker is an Episcopal minister and a student of religion and culture. He holds doctorates from Bangor Theological Seminary, Bangor, Maine, and from The Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, Brookline, Mass. Dr. Stecker is an adjunct professor in the Humanities Department at Colby-Sawyer College and teaches religion courses. He divides his time between western New Hampshire and Cambridge, Mass.

Colby-Sawyer College is a comprehensive college that integrates the liberal arts and sciences with professional preparation. Founded in 1837, Colby-Sawyer is located in the scenic Lake Sunapee Region of central New Hampshire. Learn more about the college's vibrant teaching and learning community at

Colby-Sawyer College, 541 Main Street, New London, N.H. 03257 (603) 526-3000