Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America
By Leslie Dorrough Smith
Oxford University Press, 2014
On June 19 of this year, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) hosted its second annual “March for Marriage” in Washington, D.C. An article posted on NOM’s website two days before the march expressed hope that the event would “encourage each of us to continue standing up without fear in the legal, political, and cultural spheres to preserve marriage and every child’s right to both a mother and a father.” In an email to supporters sent out the same day, the national lobbying group Concerned Women for America (CWA) also promoted the march, saying that “God’s model for marriage is under attack, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand for truth in this area.” This urgent, battle-ready language is typical of conservative Christian rhetoric on the issue, which depicts gay marriage as a force that will debase American families, victimize children, and ruin the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, supporters of gay marriage portray groups like NOM and CWA as the real threats to the nation’s values, its children, and its families. The pro-gay Family Equality Council recently filed an amicus brief in a Virginia gay marriage case, focusing on the children of same-sex couples and arguing that “the denial of marriage as an option for their parents affects their legal well-being, personal self-esteem, and sense of purpose.” On both sides of the debate, activists and spokespeople identify themselves as “supporters of marriage” and portray their adversaries as dangerous forces, not only in terms of this issue but also in terms of Americans’ well-being and the well-being of America.
Leslie Dorrough Smith has a new name for this kind of political reasoning, which she argues has deep roots in American political history. She has coined the term “chaos rhetoric” to describe it, and she offers a rich analysis of its uses and significance in her new book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Smith defines chaos rhetoric as a particular kind of “emotion-laden” narrative of national decline, which focuses so intently on a perceived threat “to a beloved entity” that it draws attention away from any gaps in the speakers’ logic or any shifts in their priorities. Smith argues that “chaos rhetoric’s signature is not necessarily its connection with reality, but its persuasive value.”
Smith takes as her case study the recent rhetoric of Concerned Women for America (CWA), the self-proclaimed “largest public policy women’s organization in the United States,” and a powerful force within the modern Religious Right. CWA was established in 1979, the same year that Jerry Falwell inaugurated the Moral Majority. Beverly LaHaye, the group’s founder, is a well-known figure in conservative evangelical circles, both for her political engagement and for her popular books on Christian marital and family life. To people outside of these circles, she is more commonly recognized as the wife of Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and author of the bestselling apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind. Over the past 35 years, CWA has grown into a powerful lobbying organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., and supported by hundreds of local chapters across the country.
Smith focuses on the CWA website as a rich and representative source of chaos rhetoric, which operates, first and foremost, through a division of the world into categories of “us” and “them.” This is perhaps most obvious in CWA leaders’ frequent appeals to the “real women” of America—women whom they represent as conservative and religious, proudly feminine and “family-oriented.” In CWA rhetoric, women who fall outside of these categories—especially feminists, lesbians, and pro-choice women—are not “real women,” and they pose significant dangers to American values.
This is another function of chaos rhetoric. By focusing on looming threats to “the nation,” chaos rhetoric reflexively defines what the nation is and whom it excludes. Or, as Smith puts it, the chaos rhetoric that CWA employs is “almost always constructed in such a way that the reader cannot identify with CWA’s opponent while considering herself reasonable and moral.” CWA presents an understanding of the nation that conflates national priorities with the organization’s priorities and national health with the organization’s gains. Thus, feminists are represented not only adversaries of CWA but as enemies of the nation as a whole. At the same time, chaos rhetoric allows the organization to set the nation apart from the government or even from public opinion by arguing that the government is controlled by elites who do not have the nation’s best interests at heart, while most members of the public have been duped by those same elites into acting against their own well-being.
A defining feature of chaos rhetoric is its flexibility, and this too is particularly apparent in CWA’s approach to feminism. The organization is centrally opposed to liberal feminism, and has been since its founding. In my own work on CWA’s early years, I examine how Beverly LaHaye relied on the specter of feminism to explain why she founded CWA in 1979. When she moved the organization’s headquarters to Washington, D.C., four years later, she announced at a press conference: “This is our message: the feminists do not speak for all women in America, and CWA is here in Washington to end the monopoly of feminists who claim to speak for all women.” More than 30 years later, opposition to liberal feminism is still a central CWA concern. Yet CWA has also recently joined with other conservative Christian women’s groups in identifying with the label “conservative feminism.” They claim to be the rightful heirs of an early twentieth-century feminist movement that the Left has distorted and betrayed. This simultaneous identification with and against feminism is made possible through chaos rhetoric, whose binary logic allows CWA to argue that feminists are not real women, and are therefore disqualified from representing women’s interests.
The book’s focus on CWA in particular and conservative Christian politics more broadly requires a discussion of the ways in which religion and politics interact. Smith offers a nuanced discussion of religious and political diversity among American Protestants. In an effort to avoid essentializing religion or implying that it is something that exists outside of culture, Smith chooses to treat “religious speech as political speech, and presume that separating the two creates a false dichotomy.” But while the religious speech of organizations like CWA is almost always also political speech, Smith’s decision to treat “religion as a tactic” risks implying that her subjects are insincere in their religious beliefs or that they only deploy religious rhetoric cynically, for political gain. The book’s focus on rhetorical analysis ends up characterizing both religion and politics as mainly strategies for gaining power, without making room for considering how religious and political belief function in people’s lives. This analytical gap stands out in a study that otherwise deftly balances empathy and criticism.
Smith rightly notes that both popular and scholarly interpretations of the Christian Right in the United States often situate this movement as uniquely absolutist, argumentative, and even illogical. In a predominately liberal academy, Smith argues, scholars have tended to characterize the language of the Religious Right as unique in part because it is easier to recognize chaos rhetoric in the language of groups whose political views clash with one’s own. Indeed, Smith asserts that scholarly interpretations of the Religious Right have sometimes amounted to “chaos rhetoric about chaos rhetoric,” which presents conservative Christian groups as particularly uncompromising, strident, and detrimental to civil political discourse.
Smith argues that the Religious Right is not especially absolutist, although conservative Christians often portray their values as unchanging and rooted in tradition. Tracing the history of conservative Christian activism through the twentieth century, Smith demonstrates that the priorities and positions of Religious Right organizations have shifted along with the dominant culture just as in any other political movement. CWA’s changing approach to feminism is one example; its stance on working mothers is another. Whereas Beverly LaHaye once blamed working mothers for juvenile delinquency and national moral degeneracy, CWA now officially condones mothers’ choice to work outside of the home as long as they continue to put family first.
CWA stands in as the case study at the center of Smith’s analysis, but the book offers much more than a narrow examination of a single organization. In her final chapter, Smith broadens her scope beyond CWA in order to make a compelling case for applying the framework of chaos rhetoric not only in analyzing the language of the Religious Right, but also in considering arguments from across the political spectrum. Analyzing the language of two liberal groups—the National Organization for Women and the People for the American Way—Smith highlights how both rely on the tools of chaos rhetoric, including a binary “us vs. them” worldview, an insistent focus on impending danger, and a conflation of the organization’s values with the values of the nation writ large. So while CWA represents “radical feminists” as “anti-family” militants “blinded by a searing lust for a woman’s right to abort her child,” the National Organization for Women characterizes Religious Right groups including CWA as “anti-woman” fanatics for whom “[m]isrepresenting ideology as science is a favored tactic.”
Indeed, what makes this book so valuable is not just that it offers an insightful analysis of an important national organization. It also provides a significant new framework for understanding contemporary political rhetoric across the political spectrum. Chaos rhetoric is not solely a mechanism of the Right, as Smith’s final chapter makes clear. While CWA lauded the recent Hobby Lobby decision as a victory for religious freedom, one Planned Parenthood appeal presented it as evidence that “we can’t count on lawmakers and politicians to do the right thing—protecting women’s health and rights is up to us.” Smith’s framework offers new insight into the rhetorical strategies embedded in each of these claims, and helps to explain how—and why—groups like these continue to talk past each other in such critical debates.
Emily Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She completed her Ph.D. in History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University in 2014.