On the evening of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, I frantically pounded out some commentary in which I invited readers to “spot the code” words in the text, those mysterious passages in which the president sent marching orders to the theocrats.
My initial reaction was that the speech had played it pretty straight, when it came to religious terms and images. There were quite a few, but they were pretty clear cut. By this, I meant that you didn’t need to be an expert on old Baptist hymnals or papal epistles to grasp what was going on.
Within a few hours, I realized that I had blown it. I knew this because Peggy Noonan, a friend of the blog and former White House scribe to Ronald Reagan and “41,” had published a truly stunning Wall Street Journal commentary in which she dissected the speech and warned that, in political and even religious terms, it had gone too far. Her piece was a rock thrown into the digital media pool and led to all kinds of debate about the speech and especially all the links between God and words such as “freedom” and “liberty.”
GetReligion is, of course, primarily interested in the religion language side of what Noonan had to say, as opposed to some of her foreign policy points. I really believe it was her comment about the God-talk that sparked the firestorm. Here is a chunk of what she had to say:
This world is not heaven.
The president’s speech seemed rather heavenish. It was a God-drenched speech. This president, who has been accused of giving too much attention to religious imagery and religious thought, has not let the criticism enter him. God was invoked relentlessly. “The Author of Liberty.” “God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind . . . the longing of the soul.” . . .
The speech did not deal with specifics — 9/11, terrorism, particular alliances, Iraq. It was, instead, assertively abstract. “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” “Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self government. . . . Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.” “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.”
Ending tyranny in the world? Well that’s an ambition, and if you’re going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.
After Noonan’s piece, another friend addressed this same passage about “ending tyranny in the world.” This is from Rod Dreher at the Dallas Morning News editorial page blog (which, sadly, does not include permalinks):
. . . (That’s) berserk. End tyranny in the world? What kind of conservative thinks such a thing is possible? I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony too, but I am not willing to give my sons to enlist in a naive and foolish crusade to turn the rest of the world into Americans. End tyranny? You may as well say America’s mission is to end original sin. Look, I’m not defending tyranny, but I am saying that we have got to recognize that there are limits to what we, and any nation, can and should do.
Meanwhile, all kinds of commentators began jumping into the arena, from The Revealer to David Brooks, from Chuck Colson of the mainstream evangelical establishment to David Broder of the mainstream media establishment. There were many, many more such pieces and there is no way I can list them all or do justice to the contents. I did think it was crucial that the Washington Post ultimately noted that, at the global level, the religious references were at the heart of most debates about the speech — in newsrooms and in government offices.
Finally, Noonan has returned to the fray with a column responding to her critics.
As you might imagine, I read and read and read and then went back and read Bush’s speech again.
What is crucial to me is that so many people said Bush sounded like he was channeling President Woodrow Wilson. This is interesting because this particular stream of almost Utopian idealism came from the river of modern Christian liberalism, from the people who looked forward to THE Christian Century and really meant it. Humanity was getting better and better and all things were possible through their efforts (and God).
There was little sense of The Fall and the belief that sin tends to complicate the work of good people as well as bad people. You get this kind of optimism from liberal Catholicism, not priests who fought the Holocaust and Marx. You get it from liberal mainline Protestants, not the often somber folks who cheer, well, for politicians like Bush who flaunt their conservatism.
At the same time, I also thought it was strange to hear some voices on the political left screaming in terror because the president had offered such a fierce defense of — let’s face it — key elements of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.
It has been a strange week. This is a topic that I think we will be following for quite some time. Anyone want to suggest some crucial commentaries that I missed? I know for a fact that I have left out quite a few.