Political Rallies: Mosse’s Nationalization of the Masses
On August 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan, then mere months from winning the presidency, uttered one of his most famous (and infamous) lines of that election year. Speaking to a gathering of more than 15,000 evangelical Christians, Reagan began his remarks with the tactful words:
“Now, I know this is a non-partisan gathering, and so I know that you can’t endorse me, but I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you and what you’re doing.”
At the end of his speech, according to onlookers, Reagan received a ten-minute standing ovation.
The future president was the last speaker of a two-day event at Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas. An ostensibly non-partisan event, Reagan was advised that the evangelicals, who overwhelmingly supported him over his opponent, Jimmy Carter, could not officially endorse his candidacy. Reagan’s creative response, writes historian Stephen Miller, was one of “the most famous lines of the Age of Evangelicalism.”
The words Reagan used were important, but historians have overlooked the aesthetic aspect, which Mosse’s insights in Nationalization of the Masses bring to the fore: the physical setting, pageantry, and spatial components that were an integral part of the event. Was this truly a non-partisan political rally? A spiritual revival (most of the speakers before Reagan were pastors or preachers)? Something else entirely? American flags and patriotic bunting were in evidence around the arena. Prayers were abundant, as were calls to individual and national spiritual renewal. Two supposedly separate areas of American life – preaching and politics – had become deeply intertwined not just rhetorically but in the very act of the gathering.
In Mosse’s study of the rites, festivals, myths, and symbols which helped nationalize Germans in the nineteenth century, he pays close attention to aspects that often receive short shrift in my own field of postwar American evangelicalism: architecture, the pageantry of ceremonies, and the role of Christian festivals. Of course, a large chasm divides nineteenth century Germany from late-twentieth century America, but there is a fruitful continuity in the methodological approaches a scholar can use to get at the process of politicization that occurred among groups in both societies.
By emphasizing these aspects of the 1980 rally/revival in Dallas, we gain a clearer understanding of the impact of Reagan’s words. Mosse highlights the need for political acts, if they are to achieve religious resonance, to achieve an aesthetics of the “beautiful” that symbolizes “order, hierarchy, and ‘the world made whole again’” (9). The mix of Christian and patriotic symbols in the Reunion Arena were a suitable backdrop for the central thrust of Reagan’s words: to defend and restore “traditional Judeo-Christianity,” “traditional morality,” and protect the value of “that old time religion and that old-time Constitution.”
The physical layout of the rally/revival was also important and intersects with what Mosse at one point touches on as “stage design” in German theater (pp. 193-95). The speaker’s podium was the obvious center of attention, but behind it sat a line of chairs with the most distinguished guests visible to the entire audience. Here Reagan, the presidential candidate, sat on an equal level with rising stars of the Religious Right – pastors such as W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas and telegenic preachers such as James Robison. Indeed, a conversation with Robison, who sat next to Reagan, led to the latter’s decision to start his speech with the “endorsement” line. The arrangement of the stage, which looked as much like a Baptist pulpit with elders arrayed behind, further bound the religious and political messaging of the event.
Relying on Mosse here is to bring a set of analytical tools to bear on an entirely different context than Germany, but a context that remains under-studied in terms of aesthetics and rituals.
Originally published: 2017.02.15 at 12:41PM