We have come to expect soaring, religion-tinged rhetoric from President Bush. Michael Gerson has defended this language as an essential part of American culture, without which our political speech would be impoverished. I’ve discussed these matters here, here, here, here, and here.
That said, there were almost no explicitly religious moments in yesterday’s SOTU Address. The only one I can find is a reference to "the road of Providence" at the very end. Others have noticed as well, some with somewhat mean-spirited glee, some with perhaps a little concern. Terry Mattingly would like to see a broadening of the rather narrow focus of the President’s "culture of life" language, perhaps further in the direction of the Roman Catholic social teaching from which it is drawn. I don’t think he’s holding his breath, unless he’s happy with Michael Novak, whose latest book is The Universal Hunger for Liberty, and doesn’t long for the soothing words of J. Bryan Hehir.
The good folks at Christianity Today are also concerned:
Viewers who had to tuck their kids into bed may have missed the President’s brief remarks on life issues, wedged as they were between the speech’s far more detailed sections on Social Security and political freedom. Does this suggest that now that Mr. Bush, who ran on a pro-life platform, has safely won a second term, he is less than eager to spend some of his "political capital" to defend the sanctity of human life and marriage? We hope not.
Yet, in an hour-long address, the President devoted but two short paragraphs to what we’d broadly call "life issues" (for lack of a better term). The words were good, but they were too few if he is really serious about building a "culture of life." This brevity in the midst of the nation’s unfolding moral confusion is unsettling. Why is he bold and visionary on economic issues that may affect our children and grandchildren, but strangely reticent on the very definitions of human life and community? While "values voters" certainly care about Social Security, they didn’t return Bush to office on this basis.
Granted, the President is not the nation’s senior pastor. But his words and actions can set a tone that allows a culture of life to flourish.
And there’s this:
Political issues such as reforming Social Security and encouraging democracy overseas are worthy challenges—both of which in broad terms we support. But we dare not neglect the issues that touch upon the foundations of human dignity and the family. What will it profit us if we gain retirement benefits and freedom and lose our national soul?
I am at the moment willing to give the President a bit of a pass. There are more appropriate venues to elaborate on and defend the culture of life. But there do need to be speeches to explain the deeds. Most promising will be, I think, opportunities to connect human dignity and human liberty, about which I’d like to hear more. Mr. McGurn, are you listening?