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Religion and American Public Argument

Workshop Leader: John M. Murphy, University of Illinois

Workshop Leader:

John M. Murphy, University of Illinois

This workshop will explore the roles that faith traditions have played in the practice of American public argument. More specifically, we’ll examine the ways in which advocates have drawn on the inventional resources of religious rhetoric to intervene in political debates. In this workshop, we will begin by discussing readings drawn from and reflecting on the Puritan tradition (e.g., Winthrop, Danforth, Miller, Walzer, and Bercovitch). This will focus our attention on the arguments and linguistic choices that gave rise to American exceptionalism. From that point forward, then, we’ll examine an array of public controversies that have sought to use the languages of American mission to advance their causes. The specific controversies will flow partly from participant suggestions, but could include debates over imperialism at the turn of the 20th century, the Social Gospel, the rise of Christian realism, the civil rights movement, and contemporary debates over social conservatism. We’ll be interested in questions such as:

  • How do we “know” religious rhetoric when we see it?
  • What constitutes such appeals and how might that differ from secular appeals?
  • When is it “legitimate” to appeal to a higher power in a pluralist democracy?
  • How do such appeals accord with the sense of contingency that infuses U.S. rhetorical theory?
  • Does the Puritan tradition or American exceptionalism always serve the interests of the status quo in some way or is it possible that they may also comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

Depending on the preferences of participants, the workshop can focus on developing research ideas or teaching units from these controversies. In short, we’ll try to develop some sense of the intersections between faith traditions and political rhetoric in the American experience. Scholars at all stages at all levels of experience are welcome.

Questions should be directed to John Murphy at

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