A famous Yale graduate once proclaimed, “All you that never passed under a great change of heart by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin — you are thus in the hands of an angry God.” This phrase became the archetype of the fiery sermons of American history and the most well-known of Jonathan Edwards’ exclamations.
Another famous Yale graduate has taken similar rhetoric and created a new model for another form of speech. President George W. Bush’s second State of the Union address effectively used religious rhetoric to define both the nation’s path and his own vision of the presidency.
The President has, since Sept. 11, 2001, been criticized for the Texas cowboy image that he puts forth in his speeches. His new rhetoric is far more religious, while maintaining his John Wayne idealism. He portrays himself as the defender of both the American citizenry and American ideals of justice.
He has found his style.
Bush evokes the religious nature of the American people in citing the “wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” The phrase “wonder-working power” comes from a traditional hymn, beloved by the Salvation Army. As the song goes, “There is power, power, wonder-working power, In the precious blood of the Lamb.” “Upon using this phrase early in his address, Bush evoked a similarly ennobling might for the citizenry.
How does this religious rhetoric work?
By using such language, the President becomes one of the American people. Through the speech, the President filled the citizenry with a sense of their ability to serve the nation well. When discussing his domestic programs, he continually referred to the proposals that he has put before the Congress. These proposals are meant to serve the American people. Most importantly, these proposals allow Americans to demonstrate their “faith,” “resolve” and “courage.”
When the president makes these claims, he does so feeling confident that the American people will find such characteristics in him, as well. His actions are motivated by the same religious fervor as the people.
As such, when Mr. Bush asks Congress to join him in supporting programs ranging from drug prevention to AIDS initiatives, he is confident that popular support will come. He can count on support from a Republican Congress in putting forth the faith-based initiatives, just as he can count on popular support.
The President has found a connection to his people through faith.
However, the impact of his religious rhetoric is most clear in his discussion of foreign policy. Mr. Bush fine-tuned his use of the word evil since coining the “axis of evil” phrase last year. This time, he painted the American people as capable of fighting evil in many forms, from AIDS, “a plague of nature,” to the man-made evil of international terrorism.
Americans are praised for their ability to “confound the designs of evil men,” “liberate an oppressed people,” and “feed the hungry.” The “wonder-working Americans” are capable of responding to these threats as a unified nation. And in his speech, Bush accepted the responsibility of leading this crusade.
However, in the most overtly religious line of the address, the president argued that the confidence and unity of Americans is not the ultimately source of their strength. Instead, it is their trust in “Providence” and a willingness to place “our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history.”
Religious language catches the ear and is a strong way to unite the disparate domestic and international goals of the administration. Such words are believable when said by a devout Mr. Bush and are familiar enough to be recognized by many Americans.
The cowboy rhetoric is still there, and prominently so. President Bush plays the sheriff, and Saddam Hussein is a gun-toting villain. However, Mr. Bush has a highly devout posse to back him up.
There were, most likely, many people, at Yale and elsewhere, who felt uncomfortable with the religious nature of the speech. However, hearkening back to the fire-and-brimstone language of Jonathan Edwards, religious oratory is a common and well-received American form of rhetoric.
The American people like to hear the words of the Bible from their elected representative. It offers them comfort and further belief in the justice of our actions. When the president puts his confidence in God, the people put their confidence in him.
Justin Zaremby is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears regularly on alternate Tuesdays.