How Bush's God-Talk Is Different
When Bush speaks of God, he positions himself as a prophetic spokesperson rather than a petitioning supplicant.
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."