How Bush's God-Talk Is Different

When Bush speaks of God, he positions himself as a prophetic spokesperson rather than a petitioning supplicant.

BY: David Domke and Kevin Coe

 
In his address on Thursday at the inauguration of his second term, George W. Bush will invoke God. We guarantee it-presidents always do so at inaugurations. That he believes in or refers to a supreme power is not what distinguishes Bush from other modern American presidents. What makes Bush notable is how much he talks about God and what he says when he does so.

Bush referenced a higher power 10 times in his first inaugural four years ago, including this claim: "I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity. I know this is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves, who creates us equal, in His image." In his three State of the Union addresses since, Bush invoked God another 14 times.

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 six 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 two God mentions in four addresses. Other also-rans in total God talk were 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.

Such rhetoric positions the president as a prophetic spokesman for God rather than as a petitioning supplicant. Such certitude is dangerous-even for those who share such views-because U.S. presidents have the unique ability to act upon their beliefs in ways that affect billions of people worldwide. Indeed, it has become clear that a good number of Americans-including many of religious faith-and billions of global citizens are leery of this president's fusion of politics and religion. To cite just one example, more than 200 U.S. church and seminary leaders in October signed a petition that criticizes the administration's convergence of God and nation as constructing a "theology of war."

All of this prompts the hope that, in these challenging times, a president who spoke after his re-election about his newly earned "political capital" not only speaks about God but also is one who listens.

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