God-talk in the GOP

by David Domke and Kevin Coe
in Sojourner’s Magazine

George W. Bush is delivering two commencement addresses this spring. One will be Friday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland - an unsurprising venue. The other took place last week at Calvin College, a small evangelical Christian school in western Michigan. The latter is the latest attempt by the administration and the Republican Party to use God for political gain.

In the past two months alone, GOP leaders have invoked God 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.

Welcome to the new world of religious politics, made successful by President Bush and increasingly adopted by other Republicans.

For some time now there has been a heated debate regarding whether Bush is different from other presidents in his religious rhetoric. Here’s the answer: He is. What sets Bush apart is 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 11 times. This came on the heels of 24 invocations of God in his first-term inaugural and State of the Union addresses. No other president since Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 has mentioned God so often in these high-state settings.

The closest to Bush’s average of 5.8 references per each of these addresses is Ronald Reagan, who averaged 5.3 in his comparable speeches. No one else is close. Jimmy Carter, considered as pious as they come among U.S. presidents, only had two God mentions in four addresses. Other also-rans in total God-talk were wartime presidents Franklin Roosevelt at 1.8 and Lyndon Johnson at 1.5 references per inaugural and State of the Union address.

Bush also talks about God differently than have most other modern presidents. Presidents since Roosevelt have commonly spoken as petitioners 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: In a famous 1941 address delineating four essential freedoms threatened by fascism, Roosevelt 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.”

Contrast this statement 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.”

Bush’s is not a request for divine favor; it is a declaration of divine wishes. And now his Republican Party colleagues are adopting the same strategy.

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.

Posted by Nuttshell on 05/27 at 10:19 AM in Blogging

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