Since the night of September 11, 2001, when George W. Bush quoted Psalm 23 and declared the day’s events to be the opening salvo of a cosmic struggle of good vs. evil, administration officials and supporters have claimed that this president’s mixture of religion and politics is nothing new in the presidency. Just last month in speaking to journalists, Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson offered this viewpoint.
That simply is not so. We have the data to prove it.
What makes Bush distinct from other modern American presidents is not that he believes in or refers to a supreme power in his public communications. What sets Bush apart is how much he talks about God and what he says when he does so. The pattern is so clear that we guarantee Bush will invoke God several times in his State of the Union address on Wednesday.
Consider that Bush referenced God seven times in his second-term inaugural address on January 20. This came on the heels of 10 invocations of God in his first inaugural and another 14 references in his three State of the Union addresses. No other president since Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 has mentioned God so often in his inaugurations or State of the Unions.
The closest to Bush’s average of 6 references per each of these addresses is Ronald Reagan, who averaged 4.75 in his comparable speeches. Jimmy Carter, considered as pious as they come among U.S. presidents, only had 2 God mentions in four addresses. Other also-rans in total God talk were war-time presidents Franklin Roosevelt at 1.69 and Lyndon Johnson at 1.50 references per inaugurals and State of the Unions.
God talk in these addresses is important because in these ritualized occasions any religious language becomes fused with American identity. This is particularly so since the advent of radio and television, which have facilitated presidents’ ability to connect with the U.S. public writ large; indeed, inaugurals and State of the Unions commonly draw large media audiences.
Bush also talks about God differently than most other modern presidents. Presidents since Roosevelt have commonly spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing, favor, and guidance. This president positions himself as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world. Among modern presidents, only Reagan has spoken in a similar manner – and he did so far less frequently than has Bush.
This striking change in White House rhetoric is apparent in how presidents have spoken about God and the values of freedom and liberty, two ideas central to American identity. Consider a few examples.
Roosevelt in 1941, in a famous address delineating four essential freedoms threatened by fascism, said: “This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God.”
Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, during the height of the Cold War, said: “Happily, our people, though blessed with more material goods than any people in history, have always reserved their first allegiance to the kingdom of the spirit, which is the true source of that freedom we value above all material things. … So long as action and aspiration humbly and earnestly seek favor in the sight of the Almighty, there is no end to America’s forward road; there is no obstacle on it she will not surmount in her march toward a lasting peace in a free and prosperous world.”
Contrast these statements, in which presidents spoke as petitioners humbly asking for divine guidance, with Bush’s claim in 2003 that “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” This is not a request for divine favor; it is a declaration of divine wishes.
Similarly, two weeks ago in his second inaugural Bush hammered home the ideas of freedom or liberty – using these words, in some form, 49 times, including this instance: “We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner ‘Freedom Now’ – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”
Some might wonder if all of these words should be attributed to Gerson, a graduate of evangelical Wheaton College who served as Bush’s primary speechwriter in his first term. The words are Bush’s. Bob Woodward, in his book about the administration’s push toward Iraq, Plan of Attack, includes this quote from Bush: “I say that freedom is not America’s gift to the world. Freedom is God’s gift to everybody in the world. I believe that. As a matter of fact, I was the person that wrote the line, or said it. I didn’t write it, I just said it in a speech. And it became part of the jargon. And I believe that. And I believe we have a duty to free people. I would hope we wouldn’t have to do it militarily, but we have a duty.”
The claim that the U.S. government is doing God’s work may appeal to many Americans, but it frightens those who might run afoul of administration wishes-cum-demands. This is particularly so when one considers how declarations of God’s will have been used by European-Americans in past eras as rationale for subjugating those who are racially and religiously different, most notably Native Americans, Africans, Chinese, and African Americans.
Indeed, scholar R. Scott Appleby in 2003 declared that the administration’s omnipresent emphasis on freedom and liberty functions as the centerpiece for “a theological version of Manifest Destiny.” Unfortunately, this twenty-first century adaptation of manifest destiny differs little from earlier American versions: the goal remains to vanquish any who do not willingly adopt the supposedly universal norms and values of white, conservative Protestants. The result, by implication in the president’s rhetoric, is that the administration has transformed Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” policy into “Either you are with us, or you are against God.”
To the great misfortune of American democracy and the global public, such a view is indistinguishable from that of the terrorists it is fighting. One is hard pressed to see how the perspective of Osama bin Laden, that he and his followers are delivering God’s wishes for the United States, is much different from Bush’s perspective that the United States is delivering God’s wishes to the Taliban or Iraq.
Clearly, flying airplanes into buildings in order to kill innocent people is an indefensible immoral activity. So too, some charge, is an unprovoked pre-emptive invasion of another nation, the cost in casualties of which has been paid by U.S. military personnel sent to fight on the basis of erroneous intelligence and by Iraqi civilians – 1,429 (with 10,502 wounded) and 15,563 (with no reliable estimate of Iraqi civilian wounded), respectively, according to conservative estimates at this writing.
And that isn’t freedom and liberty, no matter how many times you use the word or link it to God.
David Domke is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He is the author of God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror,” and the Echoing Press (Pluto Press, 2004).
Kevin Coe is a doctoral student in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Illinois.
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