US FOREIGN POLICY: The danger for America is not theocracy
Michael Gerson

I really haven't done much of this kind of speaking, so I thought I'd ease into it by talking about the non-controversial topic of religion in politics with a bunch of journalists. And I took this invitation before the election, and it's just impossible to imagine how grim this event would have been if we had lost. Everyone would be - not everyone, but a certain number of people would have said we lost because the president talked like Billy Sunday, just as there are some people now that think he won because he talks like Billy Sunday, and I don't think either of those are accurate.

The election was divisive; it was divisive in my own family. My own little boy - my six-year-old, Nicholas - announced to me in the car not long before the election that he liked John Kerry for president. And I asked him why, and he said, "So you can be home on weekends," which is tough.

My nine-year-old, who is a little more practical, said, "But how would we eat?" (Laughter.) And I said, "I think I can get a job. I might go to a think tank." And he said, "Well, what's a think tank?" And I said, "Well, it's people who read and speak, and have meetings and things," and Bucky - and this is true - said, "You mean they do nothing?"

For some of you, I think it's useful for me to tell you a little bit about myself. I'm the head of speech writing and policy adviser, which really means I just get to go to the meetings I want to. I've got about six writers that work for me and researchers and fact-checkers and others, and we have anywhere from about one to three events a day for the president. The complicating factor of my daily life is the staffing process, because we write beautiful things and then it goes to every senior member of the White House, and they all get a chance to comment and change things, and sometimes we get good speeches out of that process.

I studied theology at Wheaton College in Illinois; worked for a religious non-profit, Prison Fellowship Ministries; went to the Hill and did policy and speechwriting, and was asked - surprisingly - by Steve Waldman to work at U.S. News & World Report , where I started off covering non-profits and ended up covering politics. And I'd done a lot of work on compassionate conservatism on the Hill.

And I got a call from then-Governor Bush in the spring of 1999 to meet him down at the National Governors' Association before he was a declared candidate. And when I went up to his room, he said right off the bat, "I want you to write my announcement speech, my convention speech and my inaugural, and I want you to move to Austin immediately." So we moved to Austin.

And then the short version since then is that we've had the election crisis - the initial one, in 2000 - and then September 11th, and then the Afghan War, and then the Iraq buildup, and then the Iraq War, and then the aftermath of Iraq, and then bitter elections, you know, in this last one. And a couple of months ago I was told by my dentist that I had to have a wisdom tooth removed and that I would have to be completely immobilized for two days for the healing process. And I spent all month looking forward to the surgery.

So it's a fascinating job, and it's a tremendous roller coaster. Before a speech, you feel like the most important person in the world, and after a speech you're just a writer and really don't matter very much. And you have experiences like I had, you know, going with the president to stay at Buckingham Palace, and I had a personal footman named Russell who I really miss. And then almost immediately afterwards a Medicare speech that's a disaster, and it's your fault, and how could you be such an idiot. So it's that kind of job, which I think probably a lot of you understand.

I think it's perhaps useful to begin a discussion of rhetoric and religion by giving some actual instances of how the president has employed religious language. You know, it comes in certain categories generally when you work on it, and one of the great advantages of being a speechwriter is to quote the president and secretly know you're quoting yourself - so I'll do a little of that.

The first category in which we use these things is comfort in grief and mourning , and we've had too many of those opportunities: in the space shuttle disaster, 9/11, other things where people are faced with completely unfair suffering. And in that circumstance, a president generally can't say that death is final, and separation is endless, and the universe is an echoing, empty void.

A president offers hope - the hope of reunions and a love stronger than death, and justice beyond our understanding. And let me just read a portion of what he said at the National Cathedral on September 14 in 2001 - just an example of how we use religious language.

"God's signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own. Yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard and understood.

"There are prayers that help us last through the day or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers that give us strength for the journey, and there are prayers that yield our will to a will greater than our own.

"This world he created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn."

Having lived through these events, I know those words meant something to people. We've been criticized for them, but only after the fact.

In a second category, we sometimes employ religious language to talk about the historic influence of faith on our country. We argue that it has contributed to the justice of America, that people of faith have been a voice of conscience.

Here is the president at Goree Island in Senegal on July 8, 2003:

"For 250 years the captives endured an assault on their dignity. The spirit of Africans in America did not break. Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted. Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions. And yet in the words of the African proverb, 'no fist is big enough to hide the sky.' All the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purposes of God.

"In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom. Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found he was more like themselves than their masters. Enslaved Africans heard the ringing promises of the Declaration of Independence and asked the self-evident question, then why not me?" Part of presidential leadership is to give a narrative, a structure to the past. That's why presidents start speeches, "Four score and seven years ago." Religion is an important part of that story, and we've tried to make that point.

A third category is when we talk about our faith-based welfare reform. This is rooted in the president's belief that government, in some cases, should encourage the provision of social services without providing those services. And some of the most effective providers, especially in fighting addiction and providing mentoring, are faith-based community groups.

I know this has been a controversial assertion. My only response is that it is - at least as we've practiced it - fundamentally pluralistic. We've welcomed all faiths and people of no faith, and have gotten some criticism from the right for that.

Also, it's not really new. This has been done with Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services and a lot of others for a long time, and our innovation was to try to go beyond those traditional institutions and get resources to grassroots organizations - often African-American organizations.

A fourth category are literary allusions to hymns and scripture. In our first inaugural, we had "when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side;" or "there is power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people" in the State of the Union.

I've actually had, in the past, reporters call me up on a variety of speeches and ask me where are the code words. I try to explain that they're not code words; they're literary references understood by millions of Americans. They're not code words; they're our culture. It's not a code word when I put a reference to T.S. Eliot's Choruses From the Rock in our Whitehall speech; it's a literary reference. And just because some don't get it doesn't mean it's a plot or a secret.

I remember one incident in the last election when Frank Bruni - who is one of my favorite people; I really like and respect him - wrote on the front page of The New York Times that the president had said in an interview, actually - not a speech - that people should take the log out of their own eye before taking the speck out of their neighbor's eye. And Frank, writing on the front page of The New York Times, called this an odd version of the pot calling the kettle black. Neither he nor his editors knew it was from one of the most famous sermons in history, and the part of the New Testament that's in red. But actually, most Americans knew and the disconnect was not particularly - I don't think - the president's fault.

I'll say a couple of other things about that. It's not a strategy. It comes from my own background and my own reading of the history of American rhetoric. It's also not new. The image of a city on a hill, of course, doesn't come from pilgrim fathers; it comes from the teachings of Jesus, and "a house divided against itself cannot stand" falls in the same category. And many images of the civil rights movement were drawn from the exodus.

In political discourse, these images are given a lesser meaning, but they have an added literary resonance precisely because they have a deeper meaning. And I think that American public discourse would be impoverished without them.

A fifth category is a reference to providence, which some of the other examples have touched on. This is actually a longstanding tenet of American civil religion. It is one of the central themes of Lincoln's second inaugural. It's a recurring theme of Martin Luther King - "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice;" "we do not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future."

The important theological principle here, I believe, is to avoid identifying the purposes of an individual or a nation with the purposes of God. That seems presumption to me, and we've done our best to avoid the temptation.

In making this case, we've consistently called attention to the good works of people motivated by faith. And here's the president in his first National Prayer Breakfast in February 2001:

"There are many experiences of faith in this room, but most will share a belief that we are loved and called to love; that our choices matter, now and forever; that there are purposes deeper than ambitions and hopes greater than success. These beliefs shape our lives and help sustain the life of our nation. Men and women can be good without faith, but faith is a force for goodness. Men and women can be compassionate without faith, but faith often inspires compassion. Human beings can love without faith, but faith is a great teacher of love.

"Our country, from its beginning, has recognized the contribution of faith. We do not impose any religion; we welcome all religions. We do not prescribe any prayer; we welcome all prayers. This is the tradition of our nation and it will be the standard of my administration. We will respect every creed, we will honor the diversity of country and the deepest convictions of our people."

Here is September 20th, 2001:

"Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them."

Or the National Prayer Breakfast in 2003:

"We can also take comfort in the ways of providence, even when they are far from our understanding. Behind all of life and all of history there is a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God." Or the State of the Union in 2003:

"We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone. We do not know, we do not claim to know all the ways of providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history." I don't believe that any of this is a departure from American history. I don't think it's disturbing because it's new. As others have pointed out, President Clinton referred to Jesus or Jesus Christ more than the president does, had a much more consistent use of what might be more sectarian references.

And if you look at the examples of history, it's a useful enterprise. On D-Day, most of you probably know, FDR did his announcement to the nation entirely in the form of a prayer. He said, "In the poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer." He asked for victory, for renewed faith, and said, "with Thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogance."

Or FDR's State of the Union address a month after Pearl Harbor:

"They know that victory for us means victory for religion, and they could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate living room for both Hitler and God. In proof of this, the Nazis have now announced their plan for enforcing their new, German pagan religion all over the world, a plan by which the Holy Bible and the cross of mercy would be displaced by Mein Kampf and the swastika and the naked sword.

"We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of Genesis: God created man in his own image. We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. That is the conflict that day and night now pervades our lives. No compromise can end that conflict. There never has been, there never will be successful compromise between good and evil."

We've attempted to apply a set of rules that I've done my best to keep. We've tried to apply a principled pluralism; we have set out to welcome all religions, not favoring any religions in a sectarian way. I think that the president is the first president to mention mosques and Islam in his inaugural address. The president has consistently urged tolerance and respect for other faiths and traditions, and has received some criticism for it.

We often in our presentations make specific reference to people who are not religious; we've done that right from the beginning. In our first prayer breakfast in February of 2001, we said an American president serves people of every faith and serves some of no faith at all. And there are plenty of other examples. And as president, as a rule - and there may be exceptions but I don't know what they are - he hasn't spoken from the pulpit. We've never done anything comparable to the recent campaign when Senator Kerry spoke in churches and used a passage from the Book of James to question the president's faith. But I know that the kind of care that we try to take will not bridge all the disagreements on this topic. There seems to me a genuine disagreement in public life when it comes to religion and rhetoric. There is a view that pluralism requires silence; that religious language violates the truce of tolerance in America, and moral arguments rooted in faith are off limits in public life.

Often this is more of a distaste than an ideology. I'll give you one example. At the Reagan funeral, I thought - given the disease that Reagan had died of - that it brought to mind for me the Apostle Paul's "we see through a glass darkly but someday we'll see our Savior face to face," and that seemed like a good reference to Alzheimer's. And we used it. And Tom Shales wrote, "George W. Bush chose to proselytize that Reagan is now in heaven playing cards with Jesus Christ." This was a Christian funeral of a Christian man in a Christian cathedral, and although I wouldn't have used the card analogy, that is in fact the Christian hope that slow death and the suffering of a family are not all there is; that suffering is not the last reality; it's the next-to-the-last reality.

There's also a deeper objective that I think would be worth discussing, that seems to assume that moral reasoning rooted in religious belief is somehow itself off limits. If you are for a certain right or belief because the Constitution said so, that is okay. If you're for certain rights because you believe the image of God is found in every human being based on a theological teaching, that is not. G.K. Chesterton, in a quote I like, called this a "taboo of tact or convention whereby a man is free to say this or that because of his nationality or his profession, or his place of residence, or his hobby, but not because of his creed about the very cosmos in which he lives."

I think these tendencies are misguided for a couple of reasons. As a writer, I think this attitude would flatten political rhetoric and make it less moving and interesting - to prevent the president from exercising rhetorical leadership in times of crisis. But even more, I think the reality here is that scrubbing public discourse of religion or religious ideas would remove one of the main sources of social justice in our history. Without an appeal to justice rooted in faith, there would have been no abolition movement, no civil rights movement, no pro-life movement.

Every society, it seems to me, needs a standard of values that stands above the political order, or the political order becomes absolute. Christianity is not identical to any political ideology. It has had great influence precisely because it judges all ideologies. It indicts consumerism and indifference to the poor; it indicts the destruction of the weak and the elderly; it indicts tyranny and the soul-destroying excesses that sometimes come from freedom. And that leads me to certain conclusions. When religious people identify faith with a single political party or movement, they miniaturize their beliefs and they're reduced to one interest group among many. When society banishes the influence of faith, it loses one of the main sources of compassion and justice.

And my view is summarized best by Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that the church should not be the master of the state or the servant of the state; it should be the conscience of the state. There are clearly some dangers here at the crossroads of religion and politics. The danger for America is not theocracy. Banning partial birth abortion and keeping the status quo of hundreds of years on marriage are not the imposition of religious rule. But religious people can develop habits of certainty that get wrongly applied to a range of issues from economics to military policy. The teachings of the New Testament are wisely silent on most political issues, and these are a realm of practical judgment and should be a realm of honest debate.

The deeper danger of course is the faith itself. A political and politicized and judgmental faith seems to miss the point. I've been a Christian all my life, but I still don't feel competent to define it for others. I think, however, it has something to do with forgetting yourself and seeking the interest of other people. It has something to do with getting beyond petty fears and selfish ambitions and seeing God's kingdom at work - a kingdom that's not of this world. And when those kingdoms are confused, it is faith that suffers the most.

At any rate, I guess I'll stop there. I just wanted to set out some different categories we use so that we all can have an informed discussion on how we actually use language.

The Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted its semi-annual conference on religion and public life with some of the nation's leading journalists in December 2004 at the Pier House in Key West, Florida. Michael Gerson, speechwriter and policy advisor to President Bush spoke on Bush's use of religious rhetoric.