Columnists > Voices

The great divide

Did President Bush's inaugural address really have "too much God" in it?

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

So when you're involved in public discourse in America these days, is there some official quota you need to keep in mind with reference to the number of religious words you employ?

Given some of the chatter after President Bush's inaugural address, you'd think so. The predictable sniping from the left made me wonder whether someone had invented a new program to attach to speechwriters' word processors to flag them every time they unadvisedly slipped in an objectionable term like "faith" or "bless."

The response that really got my attention, though, was from Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal. "This world is not heaven," she wrote in an uncharacteristic column titled "Way Too Much God." But "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.'"

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About 400 words later, Ms. Noonan winds up with a warning to the president's men: "One wonders if they shouldn't ease up, calm down, breathe deep, get more securely grounded. The most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on earth is not."

Ms. Noonan, who two decades ago was a wonderful speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and who is usually supportive of George W. Bush's presidency, is theologically on target when she makes the distinction between "perfection in the life of man on earth" and "what is actually possible." But she's way off target in her implicit suggestion that if God would just take care of that heavenly perfecting business, that other-worldly, ethereal, way-off stuff, then we humans are ready and qualified on our own to deal with the here-and-now, the nitty-gritty, the practical things of life, thank you very much.

This distinction is at the heart of the great divide between the traditional secularist mindset of our age and what we call a biblical worldview. The secularist sincerely believes it is both possible and important to keep the idea of God out of public-policy discussions. A biblical worldview affirms that it is both possible and important to include the idea of God in any and all public-policy discussions. (The same secularist/biblical worldview split applies in discussions of science, economics, aesthetics, medicine-and every other field of human endeavor).

I understand that part of what we're talking about here is a matter of balance and appropriateness. And I would agree that it would be unseemly for President Bush to get up on the inaugural platform and announce that he would spend the next 22 minutes exegeting the early verses of Romans, chapter 12-and that the inaugural committee had kindly provided pew Bibles for the occasion. That would be, to use Peggy Noonan's words, "over the top."

But that is so far from what actually happened that we can only be astonished at the squeamishness we're witnessing. It's as if it were a given that when someone starts mentioning God-even in nuanced terms-in the public square, you'd best get out your anti-venom kits for the snake-handling that's sure to follow. Let a president mention a "Creator," or the idea that humans may have been "made in God's image," and palpable embarrassment starts running down the Capitol steps.

So just how much God language is right? If it's sincere, it won't take much to make the point. If it's just window dressing, any at all is way too much. But it's impropriety-not insincerity-that Mr. Bush is being charged with. The record's pretty clear that his biblically literate speech writers, like Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, are precisely on their boss's wavelength. They're not filling the president's mouth with words and phrases he finds to be awkward, but with concepts reflective of and intrinsic to his value system.

All that deserves to be part of the public discussion. Whether God has a place in public life, and in the values debate, is a key part of what some people call the "culture wars." Indeed, it may be what the whole argument's about. Don't rule it out just because somebody gets embarrassed.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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