Our Researcher of the Month for February is Kristi Boone, a PhD student in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
I returned to university in my thirties after working in politics and running my own business for several years. Two experiences spurred me to explore religious studies. First was my experience as a flight attendant in my twenties, during and post September 11, 2001. The experience of encountering religious assumptions and misunderstandings and flat out bigotry flying in and out of New York post 9/11 was an eye opener. The second was my work, years later, on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007-08. Once again, I found myself dispelling religious assumptions and ignorance daily as part of my job. When my journey with the campaign finished, I wanted to find a way to continue working on those issues. The intersection of religious belief and perception of other religions with political decisions intrigued me most, so that is the direction I followed when I did both my MA and my PhD.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
After working for the Obama campaign in 2007-08, I became very interested in how religious belief (or perception of religion) impacted politics, both in terms of the candidates and their strategy and the decisions of the electorate in the United States. I had spent a lot of time listening to and dispelling the way certain religious narratives and terminology were framed and presented to voters and how that formed who they decided was worthyof public office and how that married with perceptions of patriotism. It was clearly delineated which issues (abortion, family values, etc.) were associated with certain religious groups, but I found that from candidate to candidate, the assumption that this was purely a conservative technique seemed off base in the current political climate.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
I’m currently working on speech analysis of leading presidential candidates from election cycles in 2008-2016: Obama v. McCain, Obama v. Romney and Clinton v. Trump, to see how religious language is used in campaign speech before wide audiences. I’m hoping to find how their use of religious terminology and tropes tie into the concept of American civil religion, and whether a theory of religious roots in the American historical narrative that contribute to the concepts of patriotism, good citizenship and political action, is still a workable concept in the current political discourse; to see how concepts like American civil religion manifest in the current US landscape. So much that has been written about the intersection of religion and American politics concentrates on conservative narratives voiced by Reagan and G.W. Bush, I am deliberately seeking a more balanced sample, because I assert that the shared tropes of American civil religion are used in a bipartisan manner, though they may support differing agendas with similar rhetorical choices.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
The idea that religion underscores what it means to be “American” in terms of shared identity really crosses the spheres between public and private life and makes the United States a fascinating context for looking into the concept of religion being both a public presentation and a private practice. It is an environment where one’s private religious belief can play a significant role in determining if a person is a good “American” in the public forum of politics; a litmus test which can be applied to both candidates seeking office and voters choosing political party affiliation.
In examining the way religion is presented by political actors to the general voting public, I am hoping to draw a clearer picture of how religion integrates with public (and often presumed secular) forums such as campaign rallies and issue based, social policy speeches and which audiences are targeted with this language. I’m also focusing on how religious terms and narratives are contextualized in these speeches, to see how the actors and organisations putting forth the rhetoric are framing political agenda with religious language to persuade the electorate. By looking at these pieces of the public discourse in politics, a more accurate and current picture should emerge of the intersection between religion and the American historical narrative as it is understood by citizens of the United States and how that religious underpinning impacts the way politicians present their perspectives.