Author ORCID Identifier

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dr. Michael Harker

Second Advisor

Dr. George Pullman

Third Advisor

Dr. Ashley Joyce Holmes


This dissertation examines American public health and anti-vaccination rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic to challenge assumptions that vaccine skepticism among Christian Nationalists can be attributed to a simple “knowledge gap.” I point instead to a selective, ideologically-driven resistance to those specific scientific claims that Christian Nationalists construe as challenges to their moral authority. By demonstrating that ostensibly empirical conflicts drift into non-falsifiable stases of moral authority, this dissertation re-contextualizes the rhetorical situation of public health discourse. I argue that without detailed attention to conflicting evidentiary practices and the moral assumptions reflected therein, public health communication is unlikely to penetrate specific ideological enclaves— in this case what I term the Christian Nationalist information network, which argues out of a poetic narrative of persecution. Leveraging insights from Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jenny Rice, we will see that Christian Nationalists and public health professionals engage in incompatible language games that spring from markedly different forms of life, resulting in a failure of each to engage the other in familiar forms of evidence, reasoning, or storytelling. Further, if recent surveys are correct in indicating that Christian Nationalist thinking about public policy skews closer to the beliefs of the median American than do the preferences of those who prize a strict separation between church and state, then detailed attention to these habits of evidence may be more important than the field of rhetorical studies has acknowledged.

In addition to leveraging the insights of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language use for the benefit of rhetorical studies, the line of inquiry pursued herein represents an opportunity to improve our approach to teaching argumentation. If evidentiary practices emerge not out of some rational self but rather the archives of reasoning we’ve constructed while playing the cooperative games that constitute our forms of life, then the methods we prescribe to students when teaching argumentation may prove not only ineffective when applied across different ideological enclaves, but potentially exacerbate the intensity of such encounters. Given this challenge, I explore how teachers of composition might invite students to recognize the presence of conflicting games and adopt unfamiliar usages as a way of cooperating with other people.


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