In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, George W. Bush will
invoke God. We guarantee it.
Whether Bush is different from other presidents in his religious
rhetoric has been a point of debate among theologians, journalists,
pundits, and scholars. Here's the answer: he is. What makes Bush
is how much he talks about God and what he says when he does so.
In his second-term inaugural address on January 20, Bush
referenced God seven times. This came on the heels of 10 invocations of
God in his first inaugural and another 14 references in his three State
the Union addresses. No other president since Franklin Roosevelt took
office in 1933 has mentioned God so often in his inaugurations or State
The closest to Bush's average of 6 references per each of these
addresses is Ronald Reagan, who averaged 4.75 in his comparable
Jimmy Carter, considered as pious as they come among U.S. presidents,
had 2 God mentions in four addresses. Other also-rans in total God talk
were war-time presidents Franklin Roosevelt at 1.69 and Lyndon Johnson
1.50 references per inaugurals and State of the Unions.
God talk in these addresses is important because in these
ritualized occasions any religious language becomes fused with American
identity. This is particularly so since the advent of radio and
television, which have facilitated presidents' ability to connect with
U.S. public writ large; indeed, inaugurals and State of the Unions
commonly draw large media audiences.
Bush also talks about God differently than most other modern
presidents. Presidents since Roosevelt have commonly spoken as
of God, seeking blessing, favor, and guidance. This president positions
himself as 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 striking change in White House rhetoric is apparent in how
presidents have spoken about God and the values of freedom and liberty,
two ideas central to American identity. Consider a few examples.
Roosevelt in 1941, in a famous address delineating four essential
freedoms threatened by fascism, said: "This nation has placed its
in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and
and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God."
Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, during the height of the
Cold War, said: "Happily, our people, though blessed with more material
goods than any people in history, have always reserved their first
allegiance to the kingdom of the spirit, which is the true source of
freedom we value above all material things. ... So long as action and
aspiration humbly and earnestly seek favor in the sight of the
there is no end to America's forward road; there is no obstacle on it
will not surmount in her march toward a lasting peace in a free and
Contrast these statements, in which presidents spoke as
petitioners humbly asking for divine guidance, with Bush's claim in
that "Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right
every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is
America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity." This is not
request for divine favor; it is a declaration of divine wishes.
Similarly, two weeks ago in his second inaugural Bush hammered
home the ideas of freedom or liberty - using these words, in some form,
times, including this instance: "We have confidence because freedom is
permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of
soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers
died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens
in peaceful outrage under the banner 'Freedom Now' - they were acting
an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and
of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty
the Author of Liberty."
Some might wonder if all of these words should be attributed to
Michael Gerson, a graduate of evangelical Wheaton College who served as
Bush's primary speechwriter in his first term. The words are Bush's.
Woodward, in his book about the administration's push toward Iraq, Plan
Attack, includes this quote from Bush: "I say that freedom is not
America's gift to the world. Freedom is God's gift to everybody in the
world. I believe that. As a matter of fact, I was the person that
the line, or said it. I didn't write it, I just said it in a speech.
it became part of the jargon. And I believe that. And I believe we
a duty to free people. I would hope we wouldn't have to do it
but we have a duty."
The claim that the U.S. government is doing God's work may appeal
to many Americans, but it frightens those who might run afoul of
administration wishes-cum-demands. This is particularly so when one
considers how declarations of God's will have been used by
European-Americans in past eras as rationale for subjugating those who
racially and religiously different, most notably Native Americans,
Africans, Chinese, and African Americans.
Indeed, scholar R. Scott Appleby in 2003 declared that the
administration's omnipresent emphasis on freedom and liberty functions
the centerpiece for "a theological version of Manifest Destiny."
Unfortunately, this twenty-first century adaptation of manifest destiny
differs little from earlier American versions: the goal remains to
vanquish any who do not willingly adopt the supposedly universal norms
values of white, conservative Protestants. And that isn't freedom, no
matter how many times you use the word or link it to God.
David Domke is an associate professor in the Department of
at the University of Washington. He is the author of 'God Willing?
Political Fundamentalism in the White House', the 'War on Terror,' and
'Echoing Press' (Pluto Press, 2004). Kevin Coe is a doctoral student in
Department of Speech Communication at the University of Illinois.