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
"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, Florida. "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, said Gerson, 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
The historical patterns are easy to find. In addition to literary allusions,
said Gerson, 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," said Gerson. 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."
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."
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
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, said Gerson. 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, noted Gerson. 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, said Gerson.
"We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone," said Bush.
"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
Those anxious to criticize how the Bush White House has used religious language
should dig into the speeches of Woodrow Wilson, the Reverend Martin Luther King,
Jr., Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and many other American leaders, said Gerson.
Would critics prefer Republicans to limit themselves to the libertarian logic of
"As a writer, I think this attitude would flatten political rhetoric and make it
less moving and interesting," he 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. "There Is Power in Religious Language." On Religion
Scripp's Howard News Service (December 17, 2004).
All columns are the sole property of the author. Reprinted with permission.
Reproduction is prohibited.
Terry Mattingly writes the nationally syndicated "On Religion" column for the
Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., and is associate professor of
media & religion at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also is a senior fellow
for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.