Mating Call, Dog Whistle, Trigger: How Reactionary Religious Rhetoric Works

Samuel Perry

Samuel Perry
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma

Despite broader secularizing trends, leaders on the American political right are increasingly deploying religious rhetoric with Christian nationalist and Islamophobic elements. Drawing on new research, I outline a conceptual framework for what reactionary religious rhetoric accomplishes in the post-Obama era. Such rhetoric operates on a spectrum from overt to potentially subconscious appeals, which I explain using three metaphors: mating call, dog whistle, and trigger. In our increasingly “sorted” society, Christian nationalist rhetoric overtly recruits to partisanship (mating call). Rhetoric around “socialism” or "religious liberty" connotes specialized meanings that signal white ethno-religious threat, not overtly, but often with conscious awareness of target audiences (dog whistle). Lastly, I present new survey and experimental evidence showing references to Christianity and Islam seem to evoke perceptions of racial threat among whites—a connection unlikely to be recognized by whites themselves (trigger). Reactionary religious rhetoric thus operates on multiple registers, overtly advertising partisanship while covertly—even unconsciously—activating racial threat and resentment.