'The Danger for America Is Not Theocracy'

Bush's reclusive, evangelical speechwriter says religion is part of our culture and we shouldn't be afraid to talk about it.

BY: Michael Gerson

 
The Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted its semi-annual conference on religion and public life with some of the nation's leading journalists in December 2004 at the Pier House in Key West, Florida. Michael Gerson, speechwriter and policy advisor to President Bush spoke on Bush's use of religious rhetoric.

I really haven't done much of this kind of speaking, so I thought I'd ease into it by talking about the non-controversial topic of religion in politics with a bunch of journalists. And I took this invitation before the election, and it's just impossible to imagine how grim this event would have been if we had lost. Everyone would be - not everyone, but a certain number of people would have said we lost because the president talked like Billy Sunday, just as there are some people now that think he won because he talks like Billy Sunday, and I don't think either of those are accurate.

The election was divisive; it was divisive in my own family. My own little boy - my six-year-old, Nicholas - announced to me in the car not long before the election that he liked John Kerry for president. And I asked him why, and he said, "So you can be home on weekends," which is tough.

My nine-year-old, who is a little more practical, said, "But how would we eat?" (Laughter.) And I said, "I think I can get a job. I might go to a think tank." And he said, "Well, what's a think tank?" And I said, "Well, it's people who read and speak, and have meetings and things," and Bucky - and this is true - said, "You mean they do nothing?"

For some of you, I think it's useful for me to tell you a little bit about myself. I'm the head of speech writing and policy adviser, which really means I just get to go to the meetings I want to. I've got about six writers that work for me and researchers and fact-checkers and others, and we have anywhere from about one to three events a day for the president. The complicating factor of my daily life is the staffing process, because we write beautiful things and then it goes to every senior member of the White House, and they all get a chance to comment and change things, and sometimes we get good speeches out of that process.

I studied theology at Wheaton College in Illinois; worked for a religious non-profit, Prison Fellowship Ministries; went to the Hill and did policy and speechwriting, and was asked - surprisingly - by Steve Waldman to work at U.S. News & World Report , where I started off covering non-profits and ended up covering politics. And I'd done a lot of work on compassionate conservatism on the Hill.

And I got a call from then-Governor Bush in the spring of 1999 to meet him down at the National Governors' Association before he was a declared candidate. And when I went up to his room, he said right off the bat, "I want you to write my announcement speech, my convention speech and my inaugural, and I want you to move to Austin immediately." So we moved to Austin.

And then the short version since then is that we've had the election crisis - the initial one, in 2000 - and then September 11th, and then the Afghan War, and then the Iraq buildup, and then the Iraq War, and then the aftermath of Iraq, and then bitter elections, you know, in this last one. And a couple of months ago I was told by my dentist that I had to have a wisdom tooth removed and that I would have to be completely immobilized for two days for the healing process. And I spent all month looking forward to the surgery.

So it's a fascinating job, and it's a tremendous roller coaster. Before a speech, you feel like the most important person in the world, and after a speech you're just a writer and really don't matter very much. And you have experiences like I had, you know, going with the president to stay at Buckingham Palace, and I had a personal footman named Russell who I really miss. And then almost immediately afterwards a Medicare speech that's a disaster, and it's your fault, and how could you be such an idiot. So it's that kind of job, which I think probably a lot of you understand.

I think it's perhaps useful to begin a discussion of rhetoric and religion by giving some actual instances of how the president has employed religious language. You know, it comes in certain categories generally when you work on it, and one of the great advantages of being a speechwriter is to quote the president and secretly know you're quoting yourself - so I'll do a little of that.

The first category in which we use these things is comfort in grief and mourning , and we've had too many of those opportunities: in the space shuttle disaster, 9/11, other things where people are faced with completely unfair suffering. And in that circumstance, a president generally can't say that death is final, and separation is endless, and the universe is an echoing, empty void.

A president offers hope - the hope of reunions and a love stronger than death, and justice beyond our understanding. And let me just read a portion of what he said at the National Cathedral on September 14 in 2001 - just an example of how we use religious language.

"God's signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own. Yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard and understood.

"There are prayers that help us last through the day or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers that give us strength for the journey, and there are prayers that yield our will to a will greater than our own.

"This world he created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn."
Having lived through these events, I know those words meant something to people. We've been criticized for them, but only after the fact.

In a second category, we sometimes employ religious language to talk about the historic influence of faith on our country. We argue that it has contributed to the justice of America, that people of faith have been a voice of conscience.

Here is the president at Goree Island in Senegal on July 8, 2003:
"For 250 years the captives endured an assault on their dignity. The spirit of Africans in America did not break. Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted. Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions. And yet in the words of the African proverb, `no fist is big enough to hide the sky.' All the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purposes of God.

"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. Enslaved Africans heard the ringing promises of the Declaration of Independence and asked the self-evident question, then why not me?"
Part of presidential leadership is to give a narrative, a structure to the past. That's why presidents start speeches, "Four score and seven years ago." Religion is an important part of that story, and we've tried to make that point.

A third category is when we talk about our faith-based welfare reform. This is rooted in the president's belief that government, in some cases, should encourage the provision of social services without providing those services. And some of the most effective providers, especially in fighting addiction and providing mentoring, are faith-based community groups.

I know this has been a controversial assertion. My only response is that it is - at least as we've practiced it - fundamentally pluralistic. We've welcomed all faiths and people of no faith, and have gotten some criticism from the right for that.

Also, it's not really new. This has been done with Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services and a lot of others for a long time, and our innovation was to try to go beyond those traditional institutions and get resources to grassroots organizations - often African-American organizations.

Continued on page 2: »

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