Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

Inaugural Address Blends Politics and Religion

An inaugural address has to be read on at least two levels. On one level, itís a practical tool to deal with the political problems of the day. On another level, itís a ritual pronouncement for a ritual occasion. A religious element, larger or smaller, always haunts American political rhetoric. Some call it a civil religion. All seem to agree that George W. Bush has made it larger. Religious language is a potent force, as this president has shown quite clearly. The more we understand it, the less we are at its mercy.

The overtly religious language in Bushís second inaugural address was strikingly thin. No angel riding in the whirlwind and directing the storm this time around (as there was at the conclusion of the first Bush inaugural speech). No extended appeal for giving tax money to religious organizations (which was the dominant theme of that first speech). Only two references to God: one, a quote from Lincoln, the other denying that we can claim to be a chosen nation, because "God moves and chooses as He wills." This last sounded like a startling repudiation of a central religious theme in U.S. political rhetoric: America as Godís uniquely chosen nation.

But the religious dimension need not be overt. It can shout from between the lines. In this speech, Bush was clearly affirming that God has a plan for history, and He is using this nation as His special agent for carrying out that plan. The belief in a divinely inspired national mission is an old familiar theme in U.S. political discourse. Not quite as old, but just as familiar, is Bushís more specific claim: the goal of Godís plan, hence the goal of every U.S. policy, is freedom for all people.

For those of us who lived the cold war era, there was an eerie time-warp feeling while listening to this speech. It could easily have been given by any president from Truman to Reagan. "Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind.ÖOne day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." How can we be sure? Because "history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty." The march of freedom, with the United States in the vanguard, is not merely part of Godís plan, but the essence of that plan.

As one commentator noted, Bush "adopted the notion that tyranny anywhere threatens freedom anywhere," a fundamental mantra of the cold warriors. He did not quite say (as John Kennedy did) that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden Ö in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Bush is not especially prone to paying prices or bearing burdens. In this speech, it was only "our youngest citizens" who were asked to make any sacrifice, "to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself."

Strangely, though, Bush did not call for those sacrifices in order to defeat terrorism, the new equivalent of communism. (Indeed neither the word "terror" nor its derivatives ever crossed his lips on this ritual occasion.) Rather, he told the young that their service would "add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character." This was far more than merely a ritual pronouncement. It was a vital tip of the presidential hat to a group of voters who helped him return him to office (though not as decisively as many think): the religious right.

On the practical level, Bush had to signal that he would repay the religious right for its support. His overt signaló" even the unwanted have worth"ówas so opaque than it took the anti-abortionists in the crowd a few seconds to get it. But he offered them another more subtle signal, which was also a subtle answer to a question being asked across the political spectrum: Just what does this ideal of freedom mean, in practice?

His counsel to "our youngest citizens" answered the easier question: What does freedom not mean? It does not mean the freedom to smoke marijuana or to have sex with serial partners (whether pre- or post-maritally), he suggested, in a rich paragraph devoted to the theme of "character" (the religious rightís code word for self-control of physical desire): "In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character Ö Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the KoranÖ ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever." That is clear and simple enough to warm the heart of any conservative evangelical Christian.

What freedom does mean was only a bit less clear. It is now "the ownership society." By some mysterious invisible hand, giving people "economic independence"ótaking away the safety net set in place seven decades agoówill keep all Americans away from "the edge of subsistence." Franklin D. Roosevelt thought it was more likely to push them toward the perilous brink. By some even more mysterious alchemy, though, Bush turned his lurch toward the right into the heir of FDRís Social Security Act. "Now we will extend this vision," he warned, "by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time." Read: We will undermine social security and the progressive tax code and let the chips, and the newly impoverished, fall where they may.

This all makes sense in the context of the great theme announced in Bushís first inaugural address: compassionate conservatism. Though that theme was already being moved to a back burner before 9/11, and remained muted in this second inaugural, the ideology underlying it stills rules the White House: those who "govern the self" (i.e., the desires of the body) will invest wisely and get wealthy. Wealth and character are two sides of the same coin. Thatís why Bush could assure the young that their sacrifice would add to the wealth as well as the character of the nation. That, too, could warm the heart of any conservative evangelical Christian.

By the logic of the speech, though, Bush should have talked about the wealth and character of the world, not than just the nation. Another message that shouted clearly from between the lines was another time-honored principle of U.S. political discourse. Since we have a mission to lead the world to freedom, we must already be out in front. As America goes, so goes the whole globe. We are the model of freedom the rest of the world wants to imitate.

Bush endorsed this traditional view, but he gave it his own theological twist: "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul"óbecause thatís how God made us. The president didnít credit God explicitly in this speech, but he has said it so often that the message could hardly be missed between the lines: God has planted the desire for freedom in every soul. Thatís why freedom "is eternally right."

By this logic, every piece of U.S. foreign policy is, by definition: 1. vehicle for the Hegelian-like metaphysical principle that drives history; and 2. an embodiment of the highest and most essential feature of human nature. Quite a mouthful, for a president who prides himself on his lack of intellectual prowess. Itís not very likely that he was using the few precious moments of an inaugural address to engage in theological exposition for its own sake, nor to be the evangelist of a new of form of civil religion. He just wanted to persuade us that all of his policies are manifestations of the grand spiritual (secularists may substitute "metaphysical") scheme of things.

Here was the central link between the ritual and practical levels of the speech. An incumbent starting a second term must deal with political problems he is already responsible for. In this case, of course, the problem that had to be addressed was the war in Iraq. The war was the elephant standing on the podium next to George W. Bush, the one that nobody was supposed to mention. "He is signaling basically victory or bust, I think -- no backing down," said one conservative pundit.

The message was meant to be heard less in Baghdad and Mosul than in Boston and Modesto and all points in between. Domestically, support for the war is under 50% and falling steadily. Nothing is more urgent for Bush than keeping U.S. public opinion on his side. Along with the president and the unmentionable elephant on the east steps of the Capitol stood the ghost of Lyndon Johnson. No doubt the authors of this speech could see him there, as plain as day. So they wrote a speech whose logic was implied but easy to understand. Every piece of U.S. foreign policy is perfectly in tune with Godís eternal plan. Therefore, whatever we do in Iraq has Godís stamp of approval. No matter how many of our troops are killed and wounded (or how many Iraqis they kill and wound), itís all in the name of Godís plan.

Is that enough to keep the American people supporting a failing war effort? History casts grave doubt. One pundit said that this was an inaugural address Woodrow Wilson could easily have given, had he been elected to a third term. But even had Wilson stayed healthy and run in 1920, he would not have gained that third term, precisely because he advocated what Bush seems to advocate: an open-ended commitment to fight for liberty around the world. Even in the wake of a quick successful war, Wilson couldnít get the public to support his vehicle for that commitment, the League of Nations. FDR and his cold war successors remembered that lesson well. They touted Godís plan for history not as a spiritual imperative, but as the best weapon in the nationís arsenal against a totalitarian foe.

Bush and his writers remembered the same lesson. The address took us back to the dark days of the cold war with its clear statement that freedom for other nations is not an end in itself, but a means to avert the next 9/11. "We have seen our vulnerability," the body of the speech began, "and we have seen its deepest source Ö resentment and tyranny." Everything else flowed from that. Why resentment? Another elephant not to be mentioned (since it might be traced back, in part, to U.S. policies).

But tyrannyóthat must be overthrown by any means necessary. The freedom we bring to others might be collateral advantage. But itís really about doing what we did "for a half a century" of cold war (in Bushís own words) when "America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. Ö The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Ultimately, Bush was saying, the highest value of America (and of its civil religion, for those who believe in such a thing) is still what presidents from Truman to Reagan told us it was: national security.

Can we indeed insure our national security by destroying cities like Fallujah, torturing women in Abu Ghraib, bombing Iranian nuclear power plants, dismantling social security, providing more tax breaks to the rich, restricting abortion, or banning gay marriage? Those are questions that urgently need to be debated. By throwing the mantle of sacrality over all of his policies, Bush is doing his utmost to stifle those debates and turn his critics into impious heretics.

Thatís not to say Bush is a hypocrite. He may well believe everything he said quite sincerely. Nor does it mean he is doing anything different than previous presidents (though he may be doing it more stridently than most). It is only to say that we need to understand just whatís going on here. We must insist that debate about political policies is never heresy. Itís just freedom.


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