Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Sightings  5/26/05

Petitioner or Prophet?
-- David Domke and Kevin Coe

President Bush delivered his first 2005 commencement address on May 21 at Calvin College, a small evangelical Christian school in western Michigan.  This address marked the latest attempt by the Republican Party to use talk about God for political gain.

In the past two months alone, GOP leaders have suggested God is on their side in public discussions about the medical care of Terri Schiavo, judicial-nominee votes in the U.S. Senate, and the treatment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay over charges of unethical conduct.  This follows an election in which the president regularly spoke of the need for government to support "faith-based" initiatives, a religiously grounded "culture of life," and traditional marriage.

For some time now there has been heated debate about whether President Bush is different from other presidents in his wielding of religious rhetoric.  He is.  What sets Bush apart is both how much he talks about God and what he says when he does so.

In his Inaugural and State of the Union addresses earlier this year, Bush referenced God eleven times.  This came on the heels of twenty-four invocations of God in his first-term Inaugural and State of the Union addresses.  No president since Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 has mentioned God so often in these high-state settings.

The president nearest Bush's average of 5.8 references per each of these addresses was Ronald Reagan, who averaged 5.3 references in his comparable speeches.  No one else has come close.  Jimmy Carter, widely considered to be as pious as they come among U.S. presidents, only mentioned God twice in four addresses.  Other also-rans in total God talk were wartime presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson at 1.8 and 1.5 references per address, respectively.

Bush also talks about God differently than have most other modern presidents.  Presidents since Roosevelt have commonly spoken as petitioners to God, seeking blessing, favor, and guidance.  The current president has adopted a position approaching that of a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world.  Among modern presidents, only Reagan has spoken in a similar manner -- and he did so far less frequently than has Bush.  This change in rhetoric from the White House is made all the more apparent by considering how presidents have historically spoken about God and the values of freedom and liberty, two ideas central to American identity.

For example, in 1941, Roosevelt, in a famous address delineating four essential freedoms threatened by fascism, said: "This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God."  Similarly, John F. Kennedy, in 1962, during the height of the Cold War, said: "[N]o nation has ever been so ready to seize the burden and the glory of freedom.  And in this high endeavor, may God watch over the United States of America."

Contrast these statements, in which presidents requested divine guidance, with Bush's claim in 2003 that "Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation.  The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity."  He has made similar statements a number of times, across differing contexts of national addresses, presidential campaign debates, and press conferences.  These are not requests for divine favor; they are declarations of divine wishes.

Such certainty about God's will is troubling when found in a president and administration not known for kindly brooking dissent.  This makes it particularly noteworthy that Bush encountered something in his visit to Calvin College that he has rarely faced as president: vocal and public criticism from other Christians, many of them evangelicals.

More than 800 faculty, alumni, students, and friends of the college signed a letter published by the Grand Rapids Press, decrying Bush administration policies.  The letter included these words: "By their deeds ye shall know them, says the Bible.  Your deeds, Mr. President -- neglecting the needy to coddle the rich, desecrating the environment, and misleading the country into war -- do not exemplify the faith we live by."  Another letter expressing similar sentiments was signed by one-third of Calvin's faculty, while dozens of graduating seniors wore stickers on their caps and gowns that read, "God is not a Democrat or a Republican."

Such courageous words prompt the hope that, in these challenging times, politicians who are quick to speak about God might also learn to listen.

David Domke is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, and is the author of God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the "War on Terror," and the Echoing Press.  Kevin Coe is a doctoral student in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Illinois.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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