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WASHINGTON — Throughout his eight years in the Oval Office, President Bush frequently made public references to God, but instead of always using the traditional Judeo-Christian term for the divine, he often chose the more generic “Almighty.”
“We can be confident because freedom is universal,” Bush said recently during a stop at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. “I strongly believe there’s an Almighty, and a gift of that Almighty to every man, woman and child on the face of the Earth is freedom.”
Bush invoked the “Almighty” as he departed Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, for example, when he wished Jews a meaningful new year, and most often, when he discussed freedom.
“Almighty” emerged as Bush’s frequent term for God as he embraced his Republican Party’s evangelical base, but especially as he reached out to non-Christian groups. It was the kind of civil religion reference to the divine that suited both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but for Bush, it also worked for a country that had grown more religiously diverse.
Michael Gerson, a former chief speechwriter for the president, said Bush follows a line of presidents who have adopted a “principled pluralism” when making religious references.
“You cannot single out any faith or tradition for preference, but you can be welcoming to the essential role that’s played by all faiths and traditions in our democracy,” said Gerson, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Bush’s linking liberty to divinity was a “recurring kind of rhetorical thing that he used, even when it wasn’t in the text,” said Gerson, who noticed when the president added it to speeches.
“That phrase, `the Almighty’s gift to every human being, not America’s gift to the world’ — that was very much the president’s,” he said.
But what kind of God is “the Almighty”? Joachim Neander’s famous hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” offers a clue. The hymn speaks of “the king of creation,” a creator and sustainer who “hath fearfully, wondrously, made thee” and “who doth prosper thy work and defend thee.”
Bush’s Lincolnesque references to “the Almighty” evoked images of a steady heavenly hand in turbulent times, a providential deity who is fully in control.
It is not a strictly Christian God — although it could be — and is certainly not a Trinitarian God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet it would not sound foreign to Jews who invoke Yahweh, or Muslims who appeal to Allah.
David Aikman, author of “A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush,” said use of the term “Almighty” might indicate a desire to express a particular kind of reverence for the divine.
“People like Eisenhower were quite comfortable using the word `God’
and so was Truman,” he said. “When somebody uses the word `Almighty’, it means that they would normally use the word `God’ but they are making an effort not to sound sort of too cozy with the creator of the universe.”
Nathan Baxter, an assistant professor of communication arts at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., said the president’s rhetorical choices represent a decision to reflect American civil religion.
“I think it would be politically problematic for him to say `Jesus’
or `in the name of the Holy Trinity,”‘ he said.
Even at events with a largely evangelical audience, Bush used `the Almighty’ when referring to God. “I’m grateful to all of you, who remind us that a great people must spend time on bended knee, in humility, searching for wisdom in the presence of the Almighty,” he told a 2002 gathering for the National Day of Prayer.
Yet “Almighty” wasn’t Bush’s only reference to God. Paul Kengor, author of “God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life,” noted that Bush sometimes referred to God as “Author” as well.
“We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose,” Bush said in his 2001 inaugural address. “Yet his purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.”
While Bush clearly felt comfortable using traditional Judeo-Christian male references to God, he also tended to invoke the Hebrew Bible (not the Christian New Testament), especially when addressing interfaith audiences.
One obvious example was the first family’s annual Christmas cards, which always included a Bible verse — seven of eight from the Hebrew Bible, often the Psalms, which are shared by both Christians and Jews.
“He used the Old Testament a lot in prayer breakfasts,” said Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. “He really did always try to be ecumenical.”
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Bush’s use of “the Almighty” was not high on his long list of complaints about Bush, but saw it as an effort to be “a little more inclusive” while not denying his Christianity.
“It’s slightly more generic, but it still sounds biblical, so it could not be mistaken for `great unknown person in the sky,”‘ Lynn said.
“I just think it’s a modest effort to be more inclusive, but with language that’s clearly understood by the Christian evangelicals as an appropriate description of their view of God.”

By Adelle M. Banks
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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