Archive for Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Spirit of the times in America is spiritual

December 21, 2004


In the past quarter-century, the American presidency has become more obsessed with public-opinion polling, more preoccupied with fund raising and more tailored to the production values of the mass media. All of those things have reshaped and reoriented the modern White House. But the most distinctive feature of the American presidency in this period may well be the increased spirituality of the men who occupied it.

Abraham Lincoln's speeches, to be sure, were marked by strains of spirituality. William McKinley sought God's advice before taking the Philippines. Franklin Delano Roosevelt structured his D-Day address in the form of a prayer. But religion has never been so consistent a part of the American presidency as it has since Jimmy Carter became president 28 years ago.

Carter possessed the style of the preacher, talked more easily of his relationship with God than any president before him, and taught Sunday school while in the White House. Bill Clinton spoke in the idiom, and with the cadence, of the Pentecostal "gospel sing" he used to attend in Red Field, Ark.

And George W. Bush, whose religious awakening in his 40s transformed his life and, it is not too much to say, American history, laces his remarks with allusions to Scripture.

Religious differences

Today the split between the red states and the blue states is accompanied by a division, just as strong and perhaps just as portentous, between religious Americans and secular Americans. The two groups -- what Columbia University historian Simon Schama calls "Godly America" and "Worldly America" -- approach each other with suspicion, distrust and misunderstanding.

But by a 3-to-1 margin, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, registered voters believe it is important that the president have strong religious beliefs. So when Bush speaks in the tongue of religion, he is speaking to a public that wants reassurance that he is animated at least in part by religion.

But this is nothing new for the president, not a tactic adopted for his re-election battle and for a second-term call-to-arms of the faithful. It was evident from the very beginning of his presidency.

In his first State of the Union address, the president said there was "power, wonder-working power in the goodness, and idealism, and faith of the American people," a clear allusion to the American hymn whose chorus line is "There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb."

But spiritual themes are sprinkled throughout the Bush speaking style. In his first inaugural, he said: "And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." In his first appearance at a National Prayer Breakfast, he spoke of his "desire to speak and listen to our Maker and to know his plan for our lives," adding: "There are many experiences of faith in this room, but most of us share a belief that we are loved and called to love; that our choices matter, now and forever; that there are purposes deeper than ambition and hopes greater than success."

Much of this rhetoric gives comfort to the listener, even those who do not fully recognize the spiritual references that are often embedded in the president's speeches. But it prompts discomfort in many of the president's critics and skeptics.

Not just speechwriters

The Bush administration and the Bush campaign made no secret that it considers religious conservatives his political base. But those close to Bush say that the spirituality in the president's language comes as much from himself as from his speechwriters. Indeed, some of the spiritual language embedded in the president's remarks were scribbled in by Bush himself.

And, in truth, the Bush era has been marked by more than its share of natural moments of reflection, introspection -- and prayer. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the president attended a somber prayer service to mark a national day of mourning, and said:

"There are prayers that help us last through the day, or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers, that give us strength for the journey. And there are prayers that yield our will to a will greater than our own. This world He created is of moral design."

A few days later, in his appearance on Capitol Hill, the president sought to put the struggle against terrorism in perspective, painting it as part of an eternal struggle played out before God and with his direct involvement:

"The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

The president hit that theme a few months later before the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, saying: "Since America's founding, prayer has reassured us that the hand of God is guiding the affairs of this nation. We have never asserted a special claim on his favor, yet we've always believed in God's presence in our lives. This has always been true. But it has never been more true since September the 11th."

Mark Gerson, Bush's speechwriter and, like the president, a religious conservative, identifies four occasions when religion infuses the president's rhetoric: moments of mourning that require comfort; events calling for references to the historical influence of faith; speeches on the president's commitment to faith-based solutions for social crises; and remarks that include literary allusions to hymns and Scripture.

"Scrubbing public discussion of religious ideas would remove one of the sources of social justice from American history," says Gerson.

In last year's State of the Union address, the president described freedom as "God's gift to humanity" and added: "We Americans have faith in ourselves but not in ourselves alone. 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."

Some of the president's critics believe that Bush's use of religious rhetoric is a code he uses to communicate with his base supporters. It's more likely a code for us, Godly and Worldly alike, to help understand his own thoughts -- and to remind us that the spirit of the times is spiritual.

David Shribman is a executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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