State of the "spot the code words" game

StateU.jpgAnd the man in the lighthouse said: What was that sound?

That sound you do not hear is the major media’s silence about evangelical “code words” in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. I’ve been watching and listening and, so far, all is quiet. Now, is that a story? If so, what is the story behind the silence?

It does help that Christianity Today, the flagship of evangelical media, has published an online commentary about the speech that notes the “values vote” themes that were present and raises interesting questions about the relative silence on others. The headline was instructive: “More Culture of Life, Please — We like what we heard, we just didn’t hear enough of it.”

In a way, argued CT, the dip in presidential Godtalk is healthy, especially on the global front.

Fortunately, the President is the commander in chief, not the theologian in chief. Political rhetoric aside, Christians know that human freedom cannot bring lasting peace and prosperity˜only the sovereign Lord of history can do that. Nor can freedom fill our greatest need, which is peace with God. That being said, we rejoice in the spread of political freedom around the world and pray it will lead not only to shalom with neighbor but increased opportunities for shalom with God.

Clearly, the two big ideas in this speech were Social Security and global freedom, round II. This may have left some of the president’s strongest supporters in evangelical pulpits and pews wondering about the relative absence of the cultural and moral issues that matter so much to them. Here is how CT addressed this:

Viewers who had to tuck their kids into bed may have missed the President’s brief remarks on life issues. . . . (In) an hour-long address, the President devoted but two short paragraphs to what we’d broadly call “life issues” (for lack of a better term). The words were good, but they were too few if he is really serious about building a “culture of life.” This brevity in the midst of the nation’s unfolding moral confusion is unsettling. Why is he bold and visionary on economic issues that may affect our children and grandchildren, but strangely reticent on the very definitions of human life and community? While “values voters” certainly care about Social Security, they didn’t return Bush to office on this basis.

Granted, the President is not the nation’s senior pastor. But his words and actions can set a tone that allows a culture of life to flourish.

It would be inaccurate to say that the president did not focus on the family at all. Far down in the body of the speech, he did briefly tip his hat — gently, ever so gently — toward the front lines of the culture wars. In what was probably both an allusion to his own wild past and to the Baby Boomers in general, the president noted:

So many of my generation, after a long journey, have come home to family and faith, and are determined to bring up responsible, moral children. Government is not the source of these values, but government should never undermine them.

This was followed by a quick mention of the hottest of hot-button issues — the proposed constitutional amendment to lock in a traditional definition of marriage before “activist judges” can open the door to same-sex unions and other innovations. It would have been impossible to ignore this issue, after the ballot-box trends of election day. It is interesting that Bush did not weave any “code words” into this part of the speech.

Instead, he turned once again to “culture of life” language drawn from the work of Pope John Paul II, noting: “Because a society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable, we must strive to build a culture of life.”

At some point, evangelicals and Catholics in the center of the political spectrum are going to start pleading with the president to follow this “culture of life” line of thought on a wide variety of economic and social issues, in addition to abortion and biotech research. This is the largely uncovered story that White House scribe Michael Gerson mentioned a few weeks ago, when he briefly said that one of the most important tensions in this administration is between those advocating a consistent Catholic approach to many issues in public life and those who favor a more Libertarian approach.

How does the “culture of life” apply to Social Security? To health care? To the environment? It would be interesting to hear the president and his team address some of these questions. Let me join the CT editorial in requesting more presidential feedback on such matters. Perhaps some of the White House staffers who file copies of papal encyclicals can pass them around to the skeptics.

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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.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    Related thoughts on using parts of the SOTU to defend the president’s policy in conversations with progressive Christians can be found at the link below. Both biblical passages and “messianic dust bunnies” are invoked:

  • loyopp

    “At some point, evangelicals and Catholics in the center of the political spectrum are going to start pleading with the president to follow this “culture of life” line of thought on a wide variety of economic and social issues”

    I absolutely agree.

    I take issue with the idea that “values” got light treatment to a degree. Given their obvious intention to avoid the “laundry list” style of SOTU, I thought the “culture of life” issues featured rather prominently.

    I commented on your post extensively on my own blog, and since I can’t get trackback to work, I’m telling you here in the comments…

  • Harris

    Another reason for the absence of these themes could be in the shift in speech writers. The new head speechwriter (Bill Mc Gurn) does not share the same evangelical sensibility as Gerson, and so the rhetorical flourishes and asides that spoke to evangelical hearts went missing.

    Of course, that raises the uncomfortable question whether or not those flourishes and asides were anything more than a kind of window dressing: liberals to the contrary, “evangelical talk” may not be the President’s language at all.

  • Stephen A.

    “At some point, evangelicals and Catholics in the center of the political spectrum are going to start pleading with the president to follow this “culture of life” line of thought on a wide variety of economic and social issues”

    Talk about “code words”!

    If I was a member of the political “center,” as you call them, I would advise my colleagues to not hold their breath waiting for this.

    As you no doubt already know, Pres. Bush isn’t going to embark on a Great Society-style spending orgy on social programs in order to extend his belief in “life.” I don’t see the connection, but I understand the code words of the Religious Left when I hear it.

    Bush opposes “activist judges” (love the quotes, by the way) but he also opposes activist government – although some conservatives question that when he joins with Democrats on issues such as No Child Left Behind.

    And do we have to play the Code Word Game every time a political leader (o.k., just Bush) opens his mouth?

    What Code Words are Religious Left leaders sending out when they call for huge spending increases on programs that have largely failed in the past, or for legislation that crimininalizes “evil” thoughts against protected groups? Where does the Religious Left stand against THOSE intrusions into private life?

  • Tom Breen

    The president sure has an interesting way of opposing “Great Society-style spending orgies”: apparently it involves running up the largest budget deficits in U.S. history and creating new entitlements, like the prescription drug component to Medicare.

    I personally would welcome a discussion nationally about what the “culture of life” is supposed to be. Shady politicians of all ideological variety only stand to gain when such vague terms are left undefined.

  • Stephen A.

    Tom: You are right. I also question Mr. Bush’s committment to low spending, and I also agree that many of the terms used by politicians are vague.

    But in Mr. Bush, we know EXACTLY what he means by “life” 1: being against abortion generally, and federally funded abortions specifically and 2: being against using federal funds to experiment on human embryos.

    Yet, he’s taking a hit here for not making the term MORE broad. I suspect his opponents are simply infuriated that he knows how to connect on this issue with many voters, and they can’t.

    His agenda and social values are spelled out bluntly (far from being “code words”, as loyopp correctly points out on her blog).

    He’s likely not going to water down those words so this popular catch phrase can be hijacked for political gain. Hense, the complaints about clarity.

    Reporters’ coverage of the Right’s use of “code words” resembles the “horse race” obsession they have during political campaigns. It ends up sounding petty because many reporters resent the Right’s clarity on moral and religious issues in the first place.

    Instead, they should work to accurately portray the positions of Right and Left in both the political and religious realm. Then, that debate we all have will be an informed one.

  • Tom Breen

    Stephen: I absolutely agree with you on the “code words” fixation. I think the inevitable “what code words were used in this speech?” stories are either meant to pass as in-depth or are written by reporters bored by political speeches in general.