There Is Power in Religious LanguageTERRY MATTINGLY
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."
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 naked sword."
The historical patterns are
easy to find. In addition to literary allusions, said Gerson, presidents have
consistently used religious language when:
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 history."
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 big business?
"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."
Mattingly. "There Is Power in Religious Language." On Religion Scripp's
Howard News Service (December 17, 2004).
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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.
© 2004 Terry Mattingly