NEWS ANALYSIS: Bush Inaugural Address Links Freedom With God

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) At the heart of George Bush’s energetic second inaugural promise Thursday (Jan. 20) to spread liberty around the world were two motives: because it will make America safer and because it is a God-given right of people everywhere.

That second motive was one friends and critics listened for carefully.

The 2004 elections exposed deep divisions in the ways Americans view the relationship of faith to policy. And throughout his first term, Bush and chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, both devout Christians, addressed both terror attacks and domestic policy through a worldview profoundly shaped by faith.

Shot through Thursday’s speech was a large sub-theme anchored in faith: that, as Bush first formulated in his 2003 State of the Union address, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity” _ an idea traceable to Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that all men and women “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Superficially, the second inaugural was not so ornamented with religious imagery as past Bush speeches, nor even those of other American presidents.

Where Bush mentioned specific religious traditions Thursday he was broadly inclusive, as when he said that character is nourished in American culture “by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Quran and the varied faiths of our people.”

And while secularists would choose another reason, to Bush, men and women everywhere have rights, dignity and “matchless” value “because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

“My first impression, perhaps surprisingly, is that I found it inspiring,” Rabbi David Goldstein of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans said after the speech.

“I could quibble with some things _ gender references, things like that. Yes it has religious references, but I found them to be entirely appropriate.”

There was another inaugural passage Thursday that, while not explicitly religious, was certainly recognized by Christians and Jews familiar with the Bible.

Bush’s assertion that Americans feel pride whenever America acts for good “and the captives are set free” is a formula that closely tracks Jesus Christ’s announcement of his mission in Luke 4:18 _ which itself is an echo of Isaiah 42:7.

“I thought that was subtle, which is a notion I don’t usually ascribe to this particular president,” Goldstein said.

“I had the sense that the president was very cautious in this speech about identifying with a specific agenda of any religious group,” said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, head of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, a coalition of moderate and liberal Protestants formed to counter the Christian Coalition.

“I have sometimes criticized the president because I thought his rhetoric on occasion reflected too much of one tradition. But I thought this speech did not do that. I thought his religious references came out of a tradition of civil religion rather than any specific tradition _ and I commend that for the inauguration of the president.”

However, Bush frequently has been broadly ecumenical in his references to faith. In late 2003 he agitated fellow evangelicals when he responded to a reporter’s question by saying he thought Christians, Jews and Muslims all pray to the same God.

In the Oval Office he regularly prays with visiting non-Christians, aides have said.

At one point Thursday Bush seemed to want to explicitly distance himself from the notion _ sometimes expressed by Christian conservatives _ that he believes America is a divinely blessed nation specially commissioned by God to spread liberty around the world.

“It is human choices that moves events,” Bush said pointedly. America will stand with those who seek liberty “not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as he wills.”

“That’s a bit of humility we don’t often hear in presidential rhetoric,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly. “That line was surprising. It jumped out at me when I heard it.”

But to David Domke, a communications expert at the University of Washington who has studied the religious rhetoric of presidents, there was less to that line than meets the eye.

Domke said that just a few sentences after seeming to not want to claim a divine approval for his vision, Bush seemed to undercut the thought when he said: “History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty, and the Author of Liberty.”

“In saying that God is the author of liberty, he is suggesting that America’s work in the world is God’s work in the world,” said Domke.

Just a bit earlier Bush had reinforced that notion, quoting Abraham Lincoln’s line that tyrants do not deserve liberty “and under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”

“More than any other recent president, he links freedom and liberty to God,” said Domke, author of “God Willing: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the `War on Terror’ and the Echoing Press.”

Domke said he counted 49 references to freedom and liberty in Thursday’s speech, and four links tying them to God.


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