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Invoking God and Faith
While every U.S. president has used religious language in speeches, the kind of Scriptual references and their frequency in President Bush's speeches -- especially after 9/11 -- has drawn attention. Here are the views of E.J. Dionne, Jr., co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners Magazine; Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief, Beliefnet; Doug Wead, Bush family friend; and Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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ej dionne
Co-chair Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Washington Post columnist

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[Can you talk about Preident Bush's use of religious language in his speeches?]

Well, the fascinating thing about religious language is that so much of it -- especially biblical language, but also language from hymns -- has entered our everyday speech. So if someone is secular and hears the phrase, it sounds familiar, or it sounds like a cool phrase. If someone is religious [and] hears the phrase, the "wonder working power" of the American people, they know it comes from a hymn. So two audiences can hear these things on different levels.

I mean, you can say much the same of Martin Luther King's speeches, because a lot of what he said in some of his best speeches was rooted in Scripture. But if you had never read Scripture, you'd still like what he said.

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Steve waldman
Editor-in-chief, Beliefnet

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Talk to me about the language that he used in some of his speeches, especially where he said, "evildoers," and [how] he really made this distinction between good and evil.

There were two important things about his use of religious language after 9/11. One was that he consistently used language of good and evil. And second was that he spoke about Islam in an extremely tolerant way, more so than he needed to. Both of those things had a really important impact.

In conservative religious circles, one of the main critiques of modern society is that moral relativism, which comes about as a result of an erosion of faith, has led to a situation where we're not clear about what's right and wrong. …

Bush was very clear that there's right and wrong. What happened was done by evildoers. He was making a statement to Americans that he was willing to be unequivocal in naming evil, and in not taking a kind of moral relativistic approach.

His use of terms like "evildoers" was important in conveying a sense of strength and certainty, and making Americans feel like he was clear. … You have to feel certain that what you're doing is right, and that there's a moral cause to it. And so he was very unambiguous about it. He was very clear in using very moralistic language that we are fighting evildoers.

I think that comes from his religious background, where obviously people who are very fluent with the Bible and are very religious, are comfortable using that kind of moral language. And I think it was also politically astute. It was a way of rallying Americans around a cause.

Now it's important to look at Bush's rhetoric in terms of domestic impact and foreign impact. His use of moralistic and religious rhetoric played extremely well domestically and not so well overseas. And so it created problems, where people thought we were on a crusade, or that it was a religious war from our end, or that maybe President Bush was so certain of what he was doing that he was not adequately assessing the practicalities of the war. But domestically it was both an effective expression of his personal faith and an effective political strategy. …

The use of the phrase, "wonder-working power" -- there was much made of the fact that that was a clever way of signaling, "I'm one of you guys" to evangelicals at the same time it sounded neutral to the rest of the population. I've heard that some evangelicals were actually upset by that, because he took a sacred hymn and used it for secular purposes. So I don't know whether that worked the way it was supposed to work or not. And I think it probably points out that using religious rhetoric is a very dicey thing. It can often cut in ways that you're not expecting.

But in general we think of Bush as being a very religious man, and religion as playing an important role in his administration. All of that's true. But if you actually look at the religious rhetoric that he's used, it's very mild and general, and inoffensive. It's really no more out there than what President Clinton did, or Jimmy Carter, or just about any other modern president.

We look at it differently because of who's saying it, and because of his personal faith and the importance to him, and because of his political constituencies. So we're coming to this with a whole different set of expectations. And that, I think, is making us look at his religious rhetoric in a very different way than if Clinton had said exactly the same thing.

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Richard cizik
National Association of Evangelicals

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In the State of the Union address, [the president used the phrase] "wonder-working power." … Can you talk about that specific moment, and what it means?

The president, in his State of the Union, used terminology designed, I think, to indicate to the evangelicals that "Hey, I'm one of you," so to speak, referring to the "wonder-working power." It accomplished his purposes. He sent a message, I think, to evangelicals, "Hey, I understand."

Ultimately, theologically, the wonder-working power is the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. Evangelicals know that. But he was sending a signal of identification, I think; whether intentional or not, I don't know. We perceived it as intentional. How could it appear otherwise? How could it appear in a presidential State of the Union message except by some intent to identify with a community that is the faithful? Was it wrong? I don't think so, in any way.

I wondered myself whether this was George Bush or whether it was the speechwriter. Mike Gerson is a skillful speechwriter, a graduate of Wheaton College, an evangelical himself. So one has to always wonder, how much is it the speechwriter, and how much is it the president? We'll never know. …

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Richard land
Southern Baptist Convention

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When the president talks to evangelicals or when he talks to the nation, he uses certain words or phrases like "wonder-working power." What goes into the thought behind this? ... How does he signal to the evangelical community, without alienating someone like myself who wouldn't know that that's necessarily evangelical?

I think this idea that the president is signaling things to evangelicals is way too complex. I just don't think that that's the way that this administration works. Gerson is one of his chief speechwriters; he is an evangelical.

I thought, at the time of its delivery, that his inaugural address is one of the best inaugural addresses that has ever been delivered by an American president -- one of the most eloquent, one of the most religious that's been in a long time.

It was interesting to me to note that neutral observers have said that they think it's the best since Kennedy's. I think it will hold up very well to the judgment of history. But it is a speech which uses language that would be very familiar to Americans of an earlier time, and evangelicals are more in touch with that earlier time.

John Kennedy, in 1961, said in his inaugural address that the rights of man don't come from man; they're the gift of God. It's not Bush's rhetoric that's changed. It's many people in the country, particularly in the chattering classes, that have changed.

That kind of religious language, or that kind of God language, jars their ears. But that's because they've changed. He hasn't changed. Just go read Lincoln's second inaugural, which sounds like a sermon, [or] Roosevelt reading a prayer when he announces the D-Day invasion, a prayer which he and his daughter wrote, as they announced over the radio the D-Day invasion of 1944. ...

Bush's language, yes, it is more overtly religious and is much more comfortable talking about God and talking about divine power than would be the case with his immediate predecessors. But he's standing in a long American tradition here. I don't think that there's any conscious effort to signal things to evangelicals. His chief speechwriter is an evangelical. One of the reasons that this president is so effective as a speaker is that he says what he thinks, and he thinks what he says. ...

On Ellis Island, 9/11/02, a year after Sept. 11, Bush said, "I believe there is a reason that history has matched this nation with this time." Then he also said, "We do know that God has placed us together in this moment." What do you make of this, and what does it mean, when he says something like that?

First of all, it's hardly a novel concept for anyone who has a traditional Christian faith, be it Catholic or be it traditional Protestant, that there is a divine providence, and that we have a place and a purpose that is beyond our understanding.

He talked about this in his [recent] Yale commencement address. ... He said, "Many of us had many plans and purposes when we left here. I didn't, but many of us did. Since then, we've had many disappointments, and we've had changes. And we've come to understand that we are not the final arbiters."

Just a belief in divine providence -- hardly a novel thing in U.S. history. If there are those who find it disquieting, they need to understand, they are the ones who have moved. ... George Bush is not the one that's moved.

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doug wead
Bush family friend

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When he talks about evildoers, about evil, I know part of the construct of being evangelical or being a conservative Christian is the belief in good and evil, but people are concerned. Critics bring up this idea that somehow we're good and they're evil, and therefore, that gives us the right to go over and attack them. Can you address this issue?

When George W. Bush uses the term "evil," it's not a religious thing; it's a Reagan thing. It's "axis of evil," which was so controversial at the time, and proved so true. He's just plugging into something that works, that has appeal to conservatives, that has moral cement.

You'll notice he'll constantly say "evildoers," almost never says "evil people." He says "evildoers." The Holocaust, if it teaches anything, should teach that people can be evil; that bureaucracies can grow too arrogant and too strong and too sure of themselves and can be evil; and leaders can be too remote to understand how their policies and their hatreds and biases impact the common person. And horrible things can occur.

If they aren't evil, what are they? He felt 9/11 was wrong, and was evil. I don't know that that's all bad. I don't see that rooted in his religion especially. Maybe, but I don't see it as a conscious -- as a driving force, at all.

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Jim wallis
Editor-in-chief, Sojourners Magazine

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Every U.S. president has used God in their language when they speak to the nation. But you have expressed some concerns with President Bush's theological references. You mentioned" wonder-working power" as an example. Can you explain your concern?

… Evangelicals, like any group, have language that [its group members will] recognize, and that hymn is a very famous evangelical hymn. So every evangelical kid like me heard "wonder-working power," knew exactly right away what it was referring to, this wonderful old song. "There's power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb," which is about the salvation in Christ.

But now the president uses it for a different meaning. He says there is wonder-working power in the faith and values of the American people. Well, that's not what the song said. That's not what it was about.

So here are all these evangelicals, and they say, "That's our song. That's our language. He understands us." What it's now about is wonder-working power in us, in the Americans, in our vision, our values, our place in the world. Well, that's bad theology, and it sounds like our religion. So the two problems are its code language for one constituency, and it changes the meaning of the words. …

Mike Gerson, President Bush's speechwriter, is a well-known evangelical who went to Wheaton College. He very much would know the back and forth of all these hymns. What is he doing when he writes these speeches?

… The speeches contain biblical language and hymnology, but often misused or often put in a different context, and the meaning has been changed. The meaning of the hymns and the meaning of that biblical text has been changed to serve another purpose. That's my concern, when all of a sudden it's supporting American foreign policy, when it wasn't about American foreign policy. It's about the light of Christ in the world. It was about the word of God in history. It wasn't about the American people and their values. So he's changing the meaning of the words, and that to me is disconcerting.

So can you summarize your general concern with the president using this religious language?

It is a code language that is meant to appeal to a base, to reassure a base, to tell them he's one of them and that they understand each other. But then when he changes the meaning of the words, it's even more problematic for me, because he's really turning the words to purposes which are in our national self-interest as he perceives it, but really are contrary to what their original meaning was.

See, I think those words, that biblical tradition, would critique our foreign policy, would challenge our sense of righteousness, would call our behavior into question, would not allow us to say, "Evil is all out there, and we are the good, and those who aren't with us are with the terrorists."

I don't think biblical faith can sustain that kind of point of view. In fact, biblical faith would challenge it. So instead, the Bible is being used to justify our policies, and not to call them into question.

That, I think, is the difference in civil religion and prophetic religion. Prophetic biblical faith would call the nation to account, call our policies into question, would cause us to [engage in] self-reflection and evaluation. But the use of language like this just becomes a way to sanction our behavior and our policies, and to appeal to a constituency that feels like they are being spoken to in a very unique and particular way.

… Can you talk about the religious element that also seems to be there in the rhetoric regarding America's foreign policy and role in the world, post-Sept. 11? …

… When Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney talk about the necessity of American power and supremacy, military supremacy in the world as the only way to peace, I understand that as a foreign policy. I think it's not a wise foreign policy, but I understand it.

When President Bush adds God to their formulation and says God's purpose or intention is somehow linked with American military preeminence, that's a very dangerous thing. President Bush [and] the White House basically choreographed a liturgy at the National Cathedral. President Bush was a chief homilist. In the pulpit of the National Cathedral, he made a war speech. He called the nation to arms in the pulpit of the National Cathedral, and he claimed a divine mission for our nation to rid the world of evil.

That is not only bad foreign policy or presumptuous foreign policy -- I would say it's idolatrous foreign policy to claim God's purpose for that mission. And in the language that Mr. Bush has used, he does this again and again and again. Our role, and his role as president, this is acclaiming a righteous [decree] that Pax Americana is God's foreign policy. This is a very unsettling thing.

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posted april 29, 2004

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