Keynote address by Karen Tracy – University of Copenhagen

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The Peculiar Role of Religion
in American Citizens’ Public Discourse

Karen Tracy, University of Colorado at Boulder

A discursive practice that is widespread in the United States and less frequent in European countries is the holding of public meetings on contentious issues to which ordinary citizens come to express their views. At least at local and state levels, Americans regard it as a right of citizenship to be able to speak to a governance body meeting. In their speeches they seek to persuade elected officials how they should vote. Same-sex marriage is one issue for which Americans have been turning out in droves to speak at state legislatures. In 2009, for instance, the state of Hawaii’s hearing regarding a civil unions bill ran for 18 hours and involved testimony from 176 citizens. In February of 2011 Rhode Island took testimony from 108 people over an 8.5 hour meeting, and just a month later Colorado held two hearings that involved 133 citizens and totaled more than 11 hours. The legislative hearing materials just described, as well as several other less lengthy hearings, are part of a larger project in which I am examining American society’s dispute regarding marriage rights of gays and lesbians.

The United States is committed to respecting and honoring religious expression AND to maintaining the separation of church and state. These commitments often come into tension. My focus in this keynote is on the peculiar role of religion in American citizens’ public discourse, particularly regarding how references to or invocations of religion are used to persuade elected officials. In the first part of my talk I will illustrate the religion–limned strategies citizens use to advocate for and against same-sex unions. Then I step back from these materials to reflect about the culturally-inflected character of this kind of rhetorical citizenship. How religion should enter public debate is one of the more vexing issues that all societies must manage in some way. In concluding I argue as to the advantages and dangers of this quintessentially American form of rhetorical citizenship.