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.
Penn State University