The French presidential race is now down to two candidates. On the evening of the final selection, the winners and losers addressed their supporters and the television audience. Almost all of them concluded their remarks by saying: “Vive La France, Vive La République.”
For a Francophone audience, this may be a traditional signing off. For an American observer this was unusual. Recent American presidents have traditionally ended their victory speeches with a reference to God. George H.W. Bush 1988: “Thanks for everything, and God bless America.” Bill Clinton 1992: “God bless America.” Bill Clinton 1996: “Thank you, goodnight and God bless America.” George W. Bush 2000: Thank you very much, and God bless America.” George W. Bush 2004 “God bless you, and may God bless America.” Barack Obama 2008: “God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.” Obama in 2012: “Thank you America. God bless you. God bless these United States.” Donald Trump was the first newly elected president since Ronald Reagan in 1984 not to end his victory speech with a reference to God.
A reference to God also appears on U.S. money. “In God We Trust” was historically on coins and became the official U.S. motto in 1956. It first appeared on paper money in 1957 to distinguish the United States from the godless Soviet Union.
But does this mean that the United States is a religious country? While court cases have tested whether the name of God should be invoked as a motto and on currency, the U.S. legally separates God and the state. Walter A. McDougall’s insightful The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest argues that the U.S., although a non-religious country, has had a civil religion that has tragically led it to believe that God is always on its side. This explains why modern presidents, except Trump, have invoked God’s blessing.
Are the French more patriotic than Americans? Why is it so important to call for the continuation of the country as well as the République? One could understand why right-wing nationalists would use this invocation, but it seems to be used by a wide political spectrum. To call for the continuation of the country is odd for an American, but then again the United States has never been occupied by a foreign power. To call for the continuation of a republican form of government is also odd for an American, but then again there have been other forms of government in France while the United States has had the same form of government since its beginning over almost 250 years ago. Americans have never lived under a monarchy, thanks to Washington’s refusal to be king.
Election speeches appeal to the general public. They are the most obvious form of communication between elected officials and their constituents. Therefore, the words used are important indications of the coded understandings between the electorate and the elected. The words used are signifiers of the accepted assumptions.
As a matter of fact, Trump may turn out to be the first president in modern history to be both godless and unpatriotic. At the recent Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn, the national anthem was played. As reported in the press: “First Lady Melania Trump and 11-year-old son Barron both immediately put their hands over their hearts while the president stood with his hands by his side. It appeared that Melania then gave her husband a gentle nudge with her left arm, prompting him to also cover his heart.”
Trump as godless and unpatriotic! A truly unique president.