Department of Communication
Public Address Conference
Eric Miller

Fighting for Freedom: Culture War Rhetoric and the Liberal Tradition

This project considers five prominent religious-political figures who have led conservative movements in the United States between 1970 and 2010. In examining the written and spoken rhetoric of Phyllis Schlafly, Francis Schaeffer, Randall Terry, Phillip E. Johnson, and Maggie Gallagher, I am interested in the extent to which each bases his or her arguments on freedom, and how freedom is conceived in each case. The central claim is that, over the past forty years, social conservative activists have shifted positions, moving from an explicitly religious, prophetic mode of speech into a secularized, classically liberal rhetoric based on rights and freedoms. So while Schlafly once spoke proudly of “God’s plan for women” in opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, Gallagher now fights same-sex marriage in defense of liberal principles such as free speech. Doing so ensures a – perhaps subversive – form of access. If it is true that religious rhetors are increasingly cloaking religious arguments in liberal ideographs, new – and old – questions arise. What is the appropriate role of religious speech in the public sphere? What do we mean by “freedom,” and how malleable a concept is it? Is liberal freedom commensurate with more religious iterations? I argue that, even if the appropriation of liberalism by religious voices does constitute an attempt at political subversion, liberalism absorbs and neutralizes the threat by directing rival discourses into a shared vocabulary. Though religious questions will always divide us, we may remain united in our common commitment to liberty, and to the on-going conversation about what that means.

Eric Miller
Penn State University 

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