President or Prophet?

11 October 2004

An analysis of 70 years of presidential rhetoric reveals the radicalism of Bush’s religion.

By David Domke and Kevin Coe

The religious outlook of George W. Bush has been the focus of recent stories by several major news media. In these pieces White House officials and allies consistently have made the case that Bush’s faith and language are no different from past presidents. In the words of the Rev. Richard Neuhaus in The Washington Post, “This is so conventionally Christian piety and Christian faith” that Bush’s faith is “as American as apple pie.”

That simply is not so. Bush’s fusion of faith and politics is anything but conventional for the presidency.

The key difference is this: Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing and guidance; this president positions himself as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world. Most fundamentally, Bush’s language suggests that he speaks not only of God and to God, but also for God. Among modern presidents, only Ronald Reagan has spoken in a similar manner — and he did so far less frequently than has Bush.

This shift in posture toward a higher power, from petitionary to prophetic, is apparent in presidential language about freedom and liberty. These core American principles are staples of presidential discourse. For example, in his address to Republican Party delegates and the nation on September 2, Bush used the words “freedom” or “liberty,” in some form, 34 times.

Among these instances was this declaration: “I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.”

Have other presidents made such claims? One way to answer this question is to look at addresses that presidents have in common — Inaugurals and State of the Unions. These are important because in these ritualized national addresses 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 the U.S. public writ large; indeed, Inaugurals and State of the Unions commonly draw large media audiences.

We analyzed discourse about freedom and liberty (often used interchangeably) in these addresses from Roosevelt in 1933 through Bush in 2004. For presidents other than Reagan or Bush, only four of 61 addresses (7%) contained claims linking the wishes of God with freedom or liberty. Such claims were present in five of 12 addresses (42%) by Reagan and Bush, including the latter’s last two. Further, close examination of these instances reveals the shift in presidential postures from petitioner to prophet. Consider a few examples.

Roosevelt in 1941, in a famous address delineating four essential freedoms threatened by fascism and Nazism, 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, 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 that freedom we value above all material things. … So long as action and aspiration humbly and earnestly seek favor in the sight of the Almighty, there is no end to America’s forward road; there is no obstacle on it she will not surmount in her march toward a lasting peace in a free and prosperous world.”

Contrast these petitionary statements, in which presidents spoke from the posture of one humbly asking for 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.” This is not a request for divine favor; it is a declaration of divine wishes.

Such rhetoric positions the president as a prophetic spokesman for God rather than as a petitioning supplicant. Such certitude is dangerous — even for those who share such views — because U.S. presidents have the unique ability to act upon their beliefs in ways that affect billions of people worldwide. One is inclined to hope that Bush might recall the words of St. Augustine of Hippo to a student: “I wouldn’t have you prepare for yourself any way of grasping and holding the truth other than the one prepared by him who, as God, saw how faltering were our steps. That way is, first, humility; second, humility; third, humility; and as often as you ask, I’ll tell you, humility.”

David Domke is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He is the author of God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror,” and the Echoing Press (Pluto Press, 2004). Kevin Coe is a doctoral student in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Illinois.