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Bush’s religious rhetoric

Today’s Washington Post has a story on Michael Gerson, Bush’s chief speechwriter. Here’s Gerson’s defense of the religious references in Bush’s speeches, as reported by Alan Cooperman:

[O]n the whole, the speechwriter argued, Bush’s references to the role of providence in human affairs have been carefully calibrated and fully within the tradition of American civic religion. He said that Bush, like other presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton, has expressed trust in God without claiming to understand all of God’s ways.

And here’s Gerson’s response to those who think that Bush speaks in religious code:

"They’re not code words; they’re our culture," he said. "It’s not a code word when I put a reference to T.S. Eliot’s ’Four Quartets’ in our Whitehall speech [in London on Nov. 19, 2003]; it’s a literary reference. Just because some people don’t get it doesn’t mean it’s a plot or a secret."

Here’s the final tidbit, on the President’s frequent assertion that freedom is God’s gift to humanity:

Gerson said the president wrote those words. They are, he said, a repudiation of the kind of "American exceptionalism" that holds that God has chosen the United States as his special instrument, and an echo of Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that Americans should strive to be on God’s side rather than claiming that God is on their side.

Required reading for students of religion and politics, and a refreshing break from the myopic nonsense about Bush’s religion that often appears in the mainstream media.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Certainly a different take on the situation, but I would expect Bush’s speechwriter to defend his writings as falling within respectable parameters of religion in the civic sphere, and perhaps the speeches and God references are not as on-the-fringe as some have depicted them.

I was taken aback by this quote by (speechwriter) Gerson, in the same article:

"I think the reality here is that scrubbing public discourse of religious ideas would remove one of the main sources of social justice in our history. Without an appeal to justice rooted in faith, there would be no abolition movement or civil rights movement or pro-life movement."

Yes, agreed (although I don’t know anyone who was bothered nearly so much by Bush’s references to God, as by the CONTEXT in which his references were made, and purpose which those references clearly served - to justify military actions). But Gerson and those who agree w/ his estimation of "reality here" should also consider that there has been, and still is, a large "social justice" movement (hey, Gerson brought it up) committed to preventing/ending America’s military involvement in Iraq, and this movement is not by any means composed strictly of seculars/non-Christians. While Bush was quick to dismiss anti-war protestors as having all the significance (meaning: little to none) of a "focus group," it’s worth remembering that many constituents of that group (probably numbering many thousands at least - a large focus group!) believe in God as much as Bush does. However, they did/do not agree that the U.S. should have attacked another nation based on flimsy (and now discredited) accusations of imminent danger, WMDs, or connections with the 9/11 attacks. These people do not see such actions as placing America "on God’s side." Lincoln’s idea on that is very noble, but whether God is on Our Side (Bush: "God is not neutral in the war on terror") or we are on His, it’s an extremely subjective basis for international relations and the granting of presidential war powers, particularly when Christian believers are hardly of one mind on the righteousness of warmaking, be it this specific war, or more generally. Not to mention values-oriented non-Christians, non-believers, etc. Freedom may indeed be "God’s gift to humanity," but the gift is not being well-delivered to the Iraqi civilians who have died from US bombs and bullets, at the very least.

I should think a more appropriate quotation from Lincoln, at minimum because it is more reliable than the one usually attributed to him about praying that America be on God’s side, is found in Lincoln’s February 1861 address to the New Jersey Senate (en route to his first inauguration as president): "I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people." The phrase "his almost chosen people" both affirms and rejects the notion of American exceptionalism. Its deliberate ambiguity, arising as it did out of the crisis over slavery’s future in America, suggests how America could represent the divine intention for human beings if only they strive to perpetuate a regime most consistent with its founding ideal of the equality of humanity. Fall short of this ideal, as many slaveholding states tried to do by "seceding" after Lincoln’s election and as many nonslaveholding states did by reaping the benefits of slave labor, and America falls short of securing the equal rights of humanity with which God endowed all people. To the degree that any people organized as a governing nation strive to secure the equal rights of humanity, then to that degree they live up to a billing as "his almost chosen people."

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