In Righteous Rhetoric Leslie D. Smith investigates the rhetoric of Concerned Women for America (CWA), a Christian Right policy organisation in the United States which is also the country's largest conservative evangelical women's group. Smith examines a style of political speech favoured by CWA, which she calls ‘chaos rhetoric’, emotionally laden speech which persuades people through a depiction of a threat to their values and lifestyles, and positions CWA as the wise, trustworthy organisation which can help them defend themselves.
Chaos rhetoric is not unique to CWA. Smith argues and provides evidence that chaos rhetoric is also practised by other Christian Right groups, as well as by progressives, including scholars who study the Christian Right. The ubiquity of chaos rhetoric makes this study important for readers who seek to know more about how language can be used for political purposes, and how those with rhetorical skills position and reposition themselves on the political landscape. This study is also useful for anyone who wishes to consume political and religious news more critically.
Smith closely analyses articles about sex, gender and reproductive issues published on the CWA website since 2000. She grounds her study in Durkheim's understanding of the construction of collective sentiment; Foucault's understandings of discourse, power and knowledge; and Butler's theories about power and identity formation. One of Smith's gifts is her ability to make the complex ideas of these scholars comprehensible.
American leaders have often contested issues of sex and gender. Smith begins her analysis with a brief historical overview of these rhetorical contests and their importance in American discourse, and this is the weakest part of the book. While adequately discussing the twentieth century, Smith gives short attention to earlier periods, when many of the ideas that she discusses took shape. A fuller discussion of the social and intellectual history of gender discourse in the US would strengthen this study.
Smith explains that chaos rhetoric ‘creates its own moral panic’ (p. 68). With cogent examples from CWA articles, she demonstrates that chaos rhetoric uses techniques of categorisation and myth-making to define reality in ways which intentionally evoke a sense of threat for readers. Chaos rhetoricians construct urgency by demanding that readers take sides, employing defensive arguments and deflecting rationale, and inciting readers to action.
Smith delves deeply into the processes of defensive argumentation and rationale deflection in her chapter about CWA's ironic ability to ridicule and marginalise radical feminists while simultaneously claiming feminist credibility for themselves. CWA leaders accomplish this largely by painting their opponents as elitists who are ideologically on the fringe and themselves as mainstream representatives of true American womanhood. The strategic use of labelling, scientific and other secular studies which support their positions, educational credentials and selective renditions of history bolster their efforts to claim moral high ground.
The intellectual and moral framework for CWA's work is constructed on six interrelated issues: family, the sanctity of human life, education, pornography, religious liberty and national sovereignty. CWA leaders engage these issues synergistically. Smith identifies and explores their deft employment of emotionally charged symbols: innocent and vulnerable children, their vulnerable yet strong mothers, a vulnerable yet strong nation, and – unless their readers resist – a government which is poised to exploit and inappropriately control its vulnerable population. CWA writers artfully evoke in readers empathy for the vulnerable and antipathy for the government that might violate the rights of vulnerable citizens.
Righteous Rhetoric is a well-written, cogent and interesting analysis of chaos rhetoric: what it is and how it works. In it Leslie Smith makes two contributions. Not only does she help readers better understand this frequently used rhetorical strategy. She also makes an important corrective to scholarship about the Christian Right, which tends to depict this wing of American religion as monolithic and absolute in its theological positions. Smith ardently disagrees with that assessment, and argues instead that CWA, at least, is not at all absolute in the stands it takes. She demonstrates that its political efficacy relies on its ability to shift political position with the use of rhetorical tactics, and ‘become almost anything it needs to be’ to exert and maintain its power (p. 190).