Friday, July 14, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 3.3

And now for the final post of this week's lesson:

3. The Bible in Recent American Politics

In the last posting I mentioned the relationship between Ronald Reagan, the Religious Right, and the rise of biblical language in American politics. This mixture, as we will examine, continues with conservative President George W. Bush, but did not skip the Clinton administration. Indeed, from his famous ‘New Covenant’ speech to his second inaugural speech, Clinton drew heavily from the Bible for both quotes and imagery:

1. DNC Acceptance Speech, 1992: Clinton used the biblical language of the ‘new covenant’ (also used by the Puritans) to describe the government he would lead. He also quoted Proverbs 29:18 (‘without vision, the people perish’) to justify such a large-scale reimagining of the government’s role and purpose.

2. First Inauguration Speech, 1993: At the end of this speech, Clinton quoted Galatians 6:9 (‘and let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not’) to encourage America to work hard for his vision of a new government.

3. Second Inauguration Speech, 1997: Clinton started this speech with reference to America as the ‘promised land’ (also an old Puritan idea), and continued to speak of the ‘new American promise’ throughout. Noting that he had been given a Republican Congress to work with, Clinton decried partisanship and called upon Americans to be ‘repairers of the breach’ (Isaiah 58:12) between the parties.

After Clinton, of course, George W. Bush came to power, relying heavily on the strength of the Religious Right to get him there. In efforts to stay true to his ‘base’—and, presumably, himself—Bush’s speeches are often peppered with biblical language and imagery:

1. First Inaugural Speech, 2001: Bush declares that America will be the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), fueled by private initiative to take care of the poor. ‘And I pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.’

2. June 24, 2002 The President ends a call for new Palestinian leadership with a quote from Deuteronomy 30:19 ("I have set before you life and death; therefore, choose life."). The quote is meant to urge all parties involved towards peace, but quoting from the Jewish Scriptures alone proves divisive.

3. September 11, 2002: On the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Bush pulls from John 1:1-5:

Be confident. Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.

John 1, of course, calls Jesus—not the American ideal of freedom—the light that is not overcome by darkness.

Up until a few week’s ago, Bush’s chief speech-writer was evangelical Christian Michael Gerson. Though Gerson repudiates explicitly Christian language for political speeches, he argues that ‘there is a responsibility for public officials to maintain a principled pluralism that respects the important role of faith, but does not favor any sectarian creed.’ That being said, Gerson names the Sermon on the Mount as a central influence on his and Bush’s thinking, especially in its portrayal of a just God, and in its populous-oriented rhetorical style. But Gerson is cautious to state that policy cannot be gleaned directly from the Bible, but rather that ‘the Gospel stands in judgment of all human institutions and ideologies. It’s not identical with any one of them.’

Since the rhetorical humiliations of the 2000 elections, Democratic politicians have been eager to utilize the religious language that has won conservatives so much support. Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, and other religious figures have been called in as advisors to help the Democrats learn religious speech that is true to their beliefs (disclosure: I work for Sojourners). Clinton notwithstanding, Democrats are traditionally known for their phobia of religious matters. After the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the beginning of the 20th century, and the later rise of the Religious Right, religion has been viewed almost exclusively as the domain of conservatives. But Wallis and others are seeking to spark a ‘progressive’ religious politics that, in their view, is more ‘biblical’ than the politics championed by the Religious Right. At a recent Sojourners conference on faith and politics, both Democrat and Republican politicians mixed the Bible into calls for an end to poverty. But the keynote speakers at two major events were Democrats, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama used their time to pick up Wallis’s progressive religious rhetoric. Clinton limited her biblical quotes to a reference to caring for the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:31-46), but Obama’s speech addressed the use of the Bible at length. Recognizing that the Bible is mainly used in politics by evangelicals with considerably different agendas than his own, Obama sought a nuanced position in which the Bible could be used in a more helpful way. He distanced himself from the conservative position of ‘biblical inerrancy,’ claiming that political realism and cultural pluralism necessitate a more careful, less literal use of the Bible. Chastened though it may be, this vision ensures that the use of the Bible in American politics will only increase in years to come.

For Bush’s speeches.

The Believer: George W. Bush’s Loyal Speechwriter
By Jeffrey Goldberg

The New Yorker, 2/13 and 20/2006
Barack Obama’s recent speech.

Stephen B. Chapman, ‘Imperial Exegesis: When Caesar Interprets Scripture’ in Anxious About Empire, edited by Wes Avram (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004).
Analysis of Bush and Gerson’s use of Scripture.


Anonymous said...

Joel said... I really dig this Michael Gerson guy, he seems to have a very balanced perspective. Is it overtly religious for a Christian to bring Christianity into his or her decision making? My moral compass shapes the decisions that I make. If our compasses are set on Christ as true north then our decisions will be based (at least in part) on our faith in Him. So indirectly, anyone in any position of influence should and will be directed by their faith (or lack thereof). Bush can't take the Christian influence out of his presidency, because he can't take the Christian influence out of his life or character. When politicians use God to further their agendas it shows through clearly. However, when they sincerly try to use their positions to further God's justice then they are stewarding their positions wisely.

jamie said...

Joel- I think you raise an interesting question: to what extent is it possible to separate our faith commitment from other areas of our lives? And if, as you suggest, the answer is, 'not much,' then what kind of language do we have to relate our beliefs to others who don't share that faith commitment, but with whom we seek political collaboration? I think these are vital questions, and hope we can keep them in mind throughout. Later on in the course will talk more explicitly about some different answers theologians and philosophers have given.