One week later: Can Bush banish original sin?

Lady_libertynew_yorkOn 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chuck

    There was one in Weekly Std. that clebrated Bush’s embrace of Natural Theology.

  • chuck
  • Tom R

    M[r]s Noonan is usually something of a cheerleader for the GOP. If she thinks Bush is too messianic, then that’s saying something. It’d be like Hillary Clinton saying “Abortion is not a wonderful quasi-sacrament” (see

  • tmatt

    Chuck: That was one of the many I had, but elected not to try to list. Tell us the key point that you think was crucial….

    Remember that Gerson remark about the current GOP being torn between Catholic principles in the public square and Libertarianism?

  • Rod Dreher

    Forgive me my inchoate musings here. It seems to me that Americans tend to confuse “all men are created equal” with “all men are pretty much the same.” And so, in accord with the Whig view of history, which holds that all events have been progressing through the centuries to culminate in the fabulousness that is Us, so many of us believe that all the world needs is to have a political system just like ours, and their inner liberal democrat will emerge. (I use “liberal democrat” not in the Ted Kennedy sense, but in the sense that all of us in the West are liberal democrats). I think most Americans think that Enlightment assumptions about human nature are true. Thus they cannot imagine that any people, if given the free choice, would choose to live under tyranny. They cannot imagine that to people who have a different metaphysics than ours (say, believing Muslims) might find the way we live to be tyrannical.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating moral equivalence. I’m just saying that our metaphysical naivete leads us into some dangerous blind alleys. To paraphrase someone, “You’ve got to deal with the world you have, not the world you’d like to have.”

    As I told Peggy earlier today, when I heard Bush’s second inaugural, I wanted to yell, “Hey Icarus, come down from up there before you get hurt!”

  • tmatt


    I heard a lecture recently that stressed — over and over — that Americans think freedom. Muslims think justice and we have no idea how they define that term with in a worldview in which there is no line whatsoever between faith and the public square. In the Islamic world, God will always have veto power.

  • Rod Dreher

    Muslims also think purity, TMatt. The columnist Spengler speaks to that here:

    Here’s a pertinent excerpt. It’s long, but important to the point here. I’m going to try to use html code to italicize it; hope this works. Spengler is talking about some theological instruction from the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, comparing it to an observation about prayer from Cardinal Ratzinger:

    Less important than the differences in content – “audience” rather than “dialogue”, “submission” rather than “love” – is the difference in emphasis. With this perfunctory preface, Sistani begins a lengthy treatise on when, where, with what clothing, and in what bodily positions prayers may be said. His concern is not the spiritual experience of prayer, but establishing communal norms for prayer. Where the Christians and Jews gush with loquacity on the subject, Muslims have remarkably little to say about the experience of prayer. Reading through Muslim sources, I am at loss to find anything remotely resembling Ratzinger’s quite typical discourse on prayer.

    In fact, virtually all of Sistani’s writings address communal norms for behavior, including the most intimate. Ritual impurity (janabat) is a central concern, especially in the case of sexual relations. He writes, for example:

    “If a person has sexual intercourse with a woman and the male organ enters either of the private parts of the woman up to the point of circumcision or more, both of them enter janabat, regardless of whether they are adults or minors and whether ejaculation takes place or not.

    “If a person doubts whether or not his penis penetrated up to the point of circumcision, ghusl [bathing] will not become obligatory on him.

    “If (God forbid!) a person has sexual intercourse with an animal and ejaculates, ghusl alone will be sufficient for him, and if he does not ejaculate and he was with wudhu [ritual ablution] at the time of committing the unnatural act, even then ghusl will be sufficient for him. However, if he was not with wudhu at that time, the obligatory precaution is that he should do ghusl and also perform wudhu. And the same orders apply if one commits sodomy.

    “If movement of seminal fluid is felt but not emitted, or if a person doubts whether or not semen has been ejaculated, ghusl will not be obligatory upon him.

    “It is obligatory to conceal one’s private parts in the toilet and at all times from adult persons, even if they are one’s near relatives (like mother, sister etc.)

    “It is not necessary for a person to conceal the private parts with any definite thing, it is sufficient, if, for example, he conceals them with his hand.

    “While using the toilet for relieving oneself, the front or the back part of one’s body should not face the holy Ka’bah [shrine in the Great Mosque, Mecca.]

    “If a person sits in the toilet with the front part of his body or the back facing the Qibla [direction towards the Ka'bah] , but turns the private parts away from that direction, it will not be enough. Similarly, when the front part of the body or the back does not face Qibla, as a precaution, he should not allow the private parts to face that direction.

    “In the following three cases, the anus can be made pak [clean] with water alone:

    If another najasat [uncleanliness], like blood, appears along with the faeces.

    If an external najasat reaches the anus.

    If more than usual najasat spreads around the anus.

    “In the cases other than those mentioned above, the anus can be made pak either by water or by using cloth, or stone etc, although it is always better to wash it with water.

    “If the anus is washed with water, one should ensure that no trace of faeces is left on it. However, there is no harm if color and smell remain. And if it is washed thoroughly in the first instance, leaving no particle of stool, then it is not necessary to wash it again.”

    In calling attention to these portions of Sistani’s theology I do not mean to deprecate him. On the contrary, he addresses the inhabitants of traditional society for whom spiritual experience means submission, that is, submission to communal norms, whence the individual derives a lasting sense of identity. In the most intimate details of daily life, culture and religion become inseparable. For traditional society it is the durability of communal norms that lends a sense of immortality to the individual, a life beyond mere physical existence. That is why prayer in the Judeo-Christian sense, the lovers’ exchange between God and the individual soul, does not come into consideration within Muslim theology. Allah is the all-powerful sovereign of the world before whom the individual dissolves; the individual’s submission to the ummah, the community of Islam, is a spiritual experience of an entirely different order.

    To this the Americans can only come as destroyers, not saviors. America by its nature disrupts traditional order. It is the usurper of the Old World, the agency of creative destruction, the Spirit that Denies, to whom “everything that arises goes rightly to its ruin” (Goethe) – in short, the Great Satan. America is the existential threat to Islam.

    Now, I had totally forgotten about this column until I found myself last week on an hour-long car trip from the airport, driven by a quite friendly and loquacious Pakistani Muslim. He’s been in this country for 20 years. We talked about all kinds of things, but the conversation took the strangest turn after 45 minutes. He began to talk about how incredibly strange Americans are about their personal cleanliness. He said that in Islam, the rules for cleanliness are about half the religion. Then he started to go on with a list of the filthy (in his view) things Americans do, or don’t do, when the go to the toilet. It was stuff along the lines of what the Ayatollah Sistani said. It was one of the weirdest conversations I’ve ever had, but this man was simply telling me of his experiences and impressions.

    A man who decides that America is a corrupt and sick society because we don’t wrap toilet paper around the end of our wing-wangs to keep from dripping in our tighty-whities is living in a very different world from me and thee. We just happen to be sharing a ride. I thought this was just a curiosity, this conversation, but re-reading Spengler, I now wonder if that nice driver’s potty etiquette talk was actually a clue to why we really are in the middle of a clash of civilizations.

    (Boy, did I just trash up your blog with yucky jibber-jabber, or what?)

  • Charlie

    “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.”

    I think Peggy and Ron are hyperventilating about this passage. It doesn’t declare the end of original sin, but a direction for the ship of state to sail in. By declaring this “policy… to seek and support” Bush is speaking to our own State Department, which is notoriously unwilling to make waves no matter how many are murdered in places like pre-Saddam Iraq or the Sudan, and Europe and the UN, both of which act like professional mourners at a funeral, wailing and making noise while doing precisely nothing to end misery and suffering.

    Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24 and Luke 10:30-37 are not merely about OUR behavior before God, but about our responsibility (as God’s agents) to come to the aid of those who are weak and who suffer under the heel of evil.

    It would be naive to think that some global Tyranny Squad could eliminate all human suffering, but it is the responsibility of a just and merciful society to be willing to do what it can, what it has the power to do.

  • Stephen A.

    I haven’t changed my view on this speech, or on the overreaction to it by Peggy Noonan and others.

    Inaugurals have ALWAYS reached beyond ourselves toward something greater. Politically, that’s their role. And nearly every president’s inaugural has evoked God – repeatedly.

    The difference here, of course, is that Bush is actually a Christian believer. He takes his faith seriously, and isn’t ashamed of his faith in God. So when he makes the same pronouncements about God in an inaugural that others have (and their are very clear parallels here) media pundits go nuts, fearing “hidden messages” and a call for a Christian Crusade against Islam – funny on its face, from a speech that quotes the Quran.

    It’s been a week, and the tea leaves need to be washed into the sink. The speech wasn’t a call for universal revolution or perpetual war, just as JFK’s speech wasn’t the start of a Hot War against the Soviets.

    If there’s a subtle message in Bush’s speech, it’s probably this: “We’re going to give moral support those who are moving towards respecting their citizens’s rights, rather than propping up those who squash them.” Sounds pretty LIBERAL to me, in the best possible sense of that word.

    Even if the only change in policy is a more careful look at who we call our “allies,” or more frequent tongue lashings of Putin, the Saudis and others in private diplomacy, that is something we should encourage, not discourage.

    It’s clear to me that even if Bush had left out almost all reference to God (as he did in his first inaugural, by the way) the national media would still be trashing him, just because that’s what they do. He can’t win with some people, apparently.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    Since when is ending tyranny tantamount to banishing original sin? It’s self-serving to say so, but two commentaries that you missed and might appreciate are my own:

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    A related thought, voiced by a German journalist last year and relayed to me by a friend: “America doesn’t have an ideology because America itself is an ideology”– just look at our flag.

    While I agree with Rod Dreher more often than not, I think his Icarus image won’t fit. As New Hampshire lawyer Orrin Judd and other bloggers have pointed out, democracies have increased markedly as a percentage of national governments in the last forty years. You can quibble with whether that represents “tyranny of the majority,” but that’s a loser’s argument obviously not in keeping with what the president pledged to strive for.

    Lincoln’s Second Inaugural remains the gold standard (GWB version 2.0 didn’t even come close to unseating it), but Dubya and his speechwriters merely took Lincoln’s (understandable) domestic focus and shifted it into foreign policy. Robust, ambitious stuff. But not new, and not (pace Dreher) evidence of imperial hubris.

    Let’s not forget that GWB’s reformed Christianity includes the likes of Jonathan Edwards, who could have had a mutually agreeable and interesting conversation with Augustine of Hippo about original sin.

  • Jill

    Unfortunatly I was sick in bed the day of the Inauguration, but I printed off a transcript of it later. Frankly, I think it was a great speech and I’m rather surprised that Peggy Noonan dissed it.

  • Joe Knippenberg

    The exchange here is fascinating. My own take, in brief, is that GWB and his speechwriters are well aware of human fallibility and finitude. The goal of ending tyranny depends above all on others choosing freedom, not on America’s imposing it or effecting it for them. It is a lodestar, at best “the work of generations,” not something the Bush Administration can accomplish in its time, but something it and its successors can always promote. (Yes, it has a vaguely Kantian ring to it, but I happen to think that Kantian idealism is oddly “realistic,” especially when compared to successor German philosophies of history. Stated most simply, Kantian idealism takes as its point of departure that human beings cannot be the comprehensive causes of human history. Human beings, in other words, are finite.)

    And, finally, as one of my students very smartly pointed out, establishing political liberty is not the same thing as rooting out sin. Now THAT would be an overweening goal.

    In addition to my essay on the inaugural, linked above, there are a couple of interesting commentaries at and at

  • Joe Knippenberg

    Apologies for missing Patrick O’Hanningan’s point above. Great minds (his and my student’s) think alike.

  • Paul Cella

    “America doesn’t have an ideology because America itself is an ideology.”

    Such foolishness calls to mind Burke’s memorable comparison of the stolid English to the energumens of Revolutionary France: “nor as yet have we subtilized ourselves into savages. We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers.”

    But by this sort of “America the ideology” sophistry, we may well have subtilized ourselves into savages.

    Where is the place for the man of unpretentious intellectual aspirations in this scheme of national constitution? Where is the place for the tank commander who looks askance on all this talk of the rights of man, the fireman who hasn’t read his Harry Jaffa? If these men cannot love their country simply because she is their country; if, instead, they are asked to love ideas, and call them a country, then we conservatives are as much the enemy of patriotism as the mad Leftists who call the flag a symbol of oppression.

    All together now: America is not an idea, but a place, a home to millions. She is linked to many noble ideas and contains within her men infatuated by ideologies beyond count. But she is not, herself, an ideology — because an ideology is an abstraction, and America is a real thing.

    The proponents of America the abstraction have made a revolution in moral sentiments; they have made patriotism disreputable. With America conceived as a purely abstract thing, men lose their cachet of patriotism, so to speak, if they decline to assent to the political visions promoted by this abstraction. So it becomes un-American or unpatriotic to harbor suspicion about the entire project of modern democracy; or to doubt the wisdom of multiculturalism. In fact, patriotism is not an intellectual but an emotional sentiment; it derives from habit and custom, from real feelings about real places, from a tender sense of home and hearth, from smells imperceptible but unforgettable, from a thousand attachments subconscious but fierce. Because patriotism subsists in these things and not so much in clever arguments or fancy rhetoric or dramatic gestures; because it is more the stuff of the factory and the farmhouse, than of the halls of intellect and litigation; because it isn’t really about ideas at all but rather sentiments -”- because of all this, to make patriotism subservient to the whims and wiles of the intellectuals is to subvert it, to defeat it, and finally to discredit it. It is like saying that a man only loves his mother if he also proclaims her cooking as the best in the world; or that a child only loves his toys because they are the biggest and shiniest in the neighborhood. In the formulation of this patriotism of supremacy, the American patriot cannot comprehend a Spanish patriot because Spain has grown feeble and irrelevant; and how will he wrap his mind around the Iraqi patriot, the man who loves a broken and humiliated country. God willing, Iraq will eventually rise, but it has not happened yet.

  • Stephen A.

    While it wasn’t my post, I feel safe in defending that German journalist by concluding that he likely didn’t mean that America was LITERALLY only an ideology, since it is obviously a “brick and mortar” nation with recognizable borders, etc. Instead, he probably meant it a greater, broader sense. Just like when we say America “is mom and apple pie,” we know it isn’t LITERALLY someone’s parent or pastry.

    As for the rest of the post, I won’t admit to being able to match such purple prose and poetic puffery word-for-word (or even to decipher much of it) but will admit to being flummoxed by the thought that tank commanders are offended in some way by “all this talk of the rights of man.”

    I’m sure even the least eloquent among them knows by now that we are fighting for the Iraqi’s right to govern themselves, even if they don’t philosophize on the subject with words as pretty as you use. (I’m sure such questions occurred to tank commanders in Normandy, too, about 61 years ago.)

    I would also defend Sir Edmund Burke, who was railing against a particular kind of revolutionary ideology that has been rejected by the Britain of his day, and is rejected even today by most true conservatives. Just like the Jacobins who hijacked the concepts of “liberty” to plunge France into chaos, there are some fringe libertine/Libertarian writers today who espouse radical, narcissistic and extremist ideologies that really do destroy the long-established notions of nation, of religion and of family and replace them with honeyed words that end up simply promoting unadulterated self-love.

    I hope that obscure writer you mentioned in your jeremiad wasn’t one of THOSE. Then we’d *really* have a problem with sorting out abstractions.

  • Paul Cella

    Well I confess that I did lift much of my “purple prose” from a old blog entry of mine. But if you cannot make liberal use of your own writing, what good is it?

    What does it mean, then, when someone declares that America doesn’t need an ideology because it is one? It must mean something — and I submit that to the extent we find ourselves thinking, writing and pronouncing such things, we have become infected by the same disease that drove Revolutionary France to ruin. We might suggest its lineaments by saying that it is the disease which holds that ideas are more real than men.

    “Obscure” is not the word I would have chosen to describe Harry Jaffa; nor was my mention of him intended to convey disdain. In fact I greatly admire Prof. Jaffa.

  • Stephen A.

    When someone says “America doesn’t need an ideology because it is one,” they are speaking poetically and philosophically or they are making an analogy. They don’t mean that our nation is ONLY an ideology. If they do, they are detached from reality.

    It’s like those folks that say we are a “Nation of Immigrants.” Actually, no, most of us were born right here. We are all *descendents* of immigrants, but that’s a self-evident truth. What they mean to point out is that we should be sensitive to immigrants’ plight because we all have immigrant blood running through our veins, and that makes perfect sense, even though it’s based on a philosophical concept.

    If I thought someone was taking “Nation of Immigrants” literally, I’d be posting frantically against anyone who made such a dubious claim, too.

    Also, Prof. Jaffa has barely 70 specific hits on Google. Not exactly proflic. But maybe he is quite the hero to some.

  • Paul Cella

    “When someone says ‘America doesn’t need an ideology because it is one,’ they are speaking poetically and philosophically or they are making an analogy.”

    It is a piece of rhetoric, yes; I understand that. But I find it dubious and wrongheaded.

    Jaffa is the author of perhaps the greatest work of Lincoln scholarship of the twentieth century: _Crisis of the House Divided_.

  • Stephen A.

    Do you object to ANY use of poetic language, then, or just the one cited? Even your posting attempted a sense of the poetic, in that it reached out of the realm of common, everyday language to make your point in a somewhat colorful way. Was that dubious? (If so, I urge you to avoid reading Shakespeare at ALL COSTS. For that matter, avoid the parables of Jesus, too.)

    When preachers or politicians seek to persuade, they employ language that elevates the thoughts of their listeners. That’s not illegitimate at all, and can be quite appropriate, depending on the audience and the occasion.

    One occasion was the recent Inaugural Address. Another would be any sermon you might hear this Sunday.

    “Rhetoric” has gotten a pejorative stigma it simply didn’t have in earlier times. When it becomes overly ornate, it is simply an offense on the ears. That would be my only objection to it. I will admit, though, that some 18th century philosophers and authors are major offenders.

    I’ll have to check into your Mr. Jaffa to see if he can convey Lincoln inoffensively.

  • Dwight

    I suspect there’s some sense in which liberal protestantism is not being understood here. The protrayal of optimism in human possibility and progress evidence in some writers in the turn of the century was swept away in the wreckages of two world wars and the conquering of theology by the neo-orthodox in this country. Today’s liberal protestants are largely children of Barth and the Neibuhrs, not Shailer Matthews or Harnack…ie you’re about 70 plus years behind in your descriptions of this movement in ths US it seems.

  • Paul Cella

    Come now. Of course I don’t object to all poetic language, and much less do I object to rhetoric. The word is no pejorative in my parlance.

    But rhetoric is by nature sermonic: it recommends and denounces; it aspires to move us in a certain direction, towards a certain vision of things; its object is to achieve our argeement and perhaps enjoin us to some kind of action.

    All these things are perfectly legitimate in principle, but what the rhetoric recommends must be judged on its own merits.

    The vision of reality proposed and recommended by a rhetoric that conceives of America as, in large part at least, ideological in nature, is a vision of reality that in my judgment is ruinous.