2016-07-27
A fourth category are literary allusions to hymns and scripture. In our first inaugural, we had "when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side;" or "there is power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people" in the State of the Union.

I've actually had, in the past, reporters call me up on a variety of speeches and ask me where are the code words. I try to explain that they're not code words; they're literary references understood by millions of Americans. They're not code words; they're our culture. It's not a code word when I put a reference to T.S. Eliot's Choruses From the Rock in our Whitehall speech; it's a literary reference. And just because some don't get it doesn't mean it's a plot or a secret.

I remember one incident in the last election when Frank Bruni - who is one of my favorite people; I really like and respect him - wrote on the front page of The New York Times that the president had said in an interview, actually - not a speech - that people should take the log out of their own eye before taking the speck out of their neighbor's eye. And Frank, writing on the front page of The New York Times, called this an odd version of the pot calling the kettle black. Neither he nor his editors knew it was from one of the most famous sermons in history, and the part of the New Testament that's in red. But actually, most Americans knew and the disconnect was not particularly - I don't think - the president's fault.

I'll say a couple of other things about that. It's not a strategy. It comes from my own background and my own reading of the history of American rhetoric. It's also not new. The image of a city on a hill, of course, doesn't come from pilgrim fathers; it comes from the teachings of Jesus, and "a house divided against itself cannot stand" falls in the same category. And many images of the civil rights movement were drawn from the exodus.

In political discourse, these images are given a lesser meaning, but they have an added literary resonance precisely because they have a deeper meaning. And I think that American public discourse would be impoverished without them.

A fifth category is a reference to providence, which some of the other examples have touched on. This is actually a longstanding tenet of American civil religion. It is one of the central themes of Lincoln's second inaugural. It's a recurring theme of Martin Luther King - "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice;" "we do not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future."

The important theological principle here, I believe, is to avoid identifying the purposes of an individual or a nation with the purposes of God. That seems presumption to me, and we've done our best to avoid the temptation.


In making this case, we've consistently called attention to the good works of people motivated by faith. And here's the president in his first National Prayer Breakfast in February 2001:
"There are many experiences of faith in this room, but most will share a belief that we are loved and called to love; that our choices matter, now and forever; that there are purposes deeper than ambitions and hopes greater than success. These beliefs shape our lives and help sustain the life of our nation. Men and women can be good without faith, but faith is a force for goodness. Men and women can be compassionate without faith, but faith often inspires compassion. Human beings can love without faith, but faith is a great teacher of love.

"Our country, from its beginning, has recognized the contribution of faith. We do not impose any religion; we welcome all religions. We do not prescribe any prayer; we welcome all prayers. This is the tradition of our nation and it will be the standard of my administration. We will respect every creed, we will honor the diversity of country and the deepest convictions of our people."

Here is September 20th, 2001:
"Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them."
Or the National Prayer Breakfast in 2003:
"We can also take comfort in the ways of providence, even when they are far from our understanding. Behind all of life and all of history there is a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God."
Or the State of the Union in 2003:
"We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone. We do not know, 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."
I don't believe that any of this is a departure from American history. I don't think it's disturbing because it's new. As others have pointed out, President Clinton referred to Jesus or Jesus Christ more than the president does, had a much more consistent use of what might be more sectarian references.

And if you look at the examples of history, it's a useful enterprise. On D-Day, most of you probably know, FDR did his announcement to the nation entirely in the form of a prayer. He said, "In the poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer." He asked for victory, for renewed faith, and said, "with Thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogance."