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FIRST-PERSON: Religious language, amid triumph & tragedy

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–White House scribe Michael Gerson’s telephone rang with a vengeance after the 2003 State of the Union address and its claim that there is “power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.”

In the age of Google, it was easy to connect this with the gospel hymn “Power in the Blood,” which says there is “power, wonder-working power, in the precious blood of the Lamb.” Soon, journalists were calling Gerson’s West Wing office asking him to underline all the evangelical “code words” hidden in major speeches.

“They’re not code words. They’re our culture. … They are literary allusions understood by millions of Americans,” Gerson told 24 journalists at a recent Ethics and Public Policy Center seminar in Key West, Fla. “It’s not a strategy. It’s just the way that I write and the president likes it.”

George W. Bush is not speaking in an unknown tongue.

Anyone who studies what presidents — from George Washington to Bill Clinton — have said in times of triumph and tragedy knows that faith language is normal. If anything, Gerson said, today’s imagery has become more nuanced. It’s hard to imagine Bush delivering anything resembling Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 address warning that the Nazis yearned to spread their “pagan religion” worldwide, replacing the “Holy Bible and the Cross of Mercy” with the “swastika and the naked sword.”

The historical patterns are easy to find. In addition to literary allusions, Gerson said, presidents have consistently used religious language when:

— offering words of comfort. Presidents cannot face the nation after shocking tragedies and say that “death is the end, life is meaningless and the universe is a vast, empty, echoing void,” Gerson said. Instead, they use words similar to Bush’s remarks after the space shuttle disaster: “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”

— praising the influence of faith on efforts to promote justice. Thus, in a 2003 speech on Goree Island, Senegal, Bush bluntly described America’s sinful history of slavery. But he added: “In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom. Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found he was more like themselves than their masters.”

— asking citizens to help their neighbors. For Bush, this “faith-based rhetoric” has been closely connected with “compassionate conservatism” and his efforts to allow religious groups to find niches within wider government programs to help the needy.

— alluding to divine providence in national life. Here, the rhetorical bar has been set especially high by Abraham Lincoln, who insisted that Americans can hope to be on God’s side but cannot claim that God is fighting on their side.

Presidents use religious language in wartime, Gerson said. Nevertheless, critics of the war in Iraq have attacked Bush’s consistent use of these words: “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It is almighty God’s gift to all humanity.”

The president wrote those words, Gerson noted. Working together, they have tried to emphasize that Bush rejects what scholars call “American exceptionalism” — the belief that America is uniquely God’s instrument in history. The president’s stance is best expressed in the 2003 State of the Union address, Gerson said.

“We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone,” Bush said. “We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.”

Those anxious to criticize how the Bush White House has used religious language should dig into the speeches of Woodrow Wilson, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and many other American leaders, Gerson said. Would critics prefer Republicans to limit themselves to the libertarian logic of big business?

“As a writer, I think this attitude would flatten political rhetoric and make it less moving and interesting,” Gerson said. “But even more, I think the reality here is that scrubbing public discourse of religious ideas would remove one of the main sources of social justice in our history.”
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Used by permission.

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  • Terry Mattingly