Thursday, January 20, 2005

Inaugural prophet

Speaking of the "Christian nation" ...

Listen carefully to President Bush's inauguration speech today. It's nearly certain you'll hear not just the usual effusive references to God and faith, but a distinctive view of the role of religion in politics.

UW communications professor David Domke (whose work I've cited previously) makes an interesting observation about this in an op-ed in the P-I:
No other president since Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 has mentioned God so often in his Inaugurations or State of the Unions. The closest to Bush's average of six references per each of these addresses is Ronald Reagan, who averaged 4.75 in his comparable speeches. Jimmy Carter, considered as pious as they come among U.S. presidents, had only two mentions of God in four addresses. Other also-rans in total God talk were Roosevelt at 1.69 and Lyndon Johnson at 1.50 references per Inaugurals and State of the Unions.

God talk in these addresses is important because in these ritualized occasions any religious language becomes fused with U.S. identity. This is particularly so since the advent of radio and television, which have facilitated presidents' ability to connect with the U.S. public writ large; indeed, Inaugurals and State of the Unions commonly draw large media audiences.

Bush also talks about God differently than most other modern presidents. Presidents since Roosevelt have commonly spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing, favor and guidance. This president positions himself as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world. Among modern presidents, only Reagan has spoken in a similar manner -- and he did so far less frequently than has Bush.

Some of my regular commenters have expressed doubt that religiosity like this (or that voiced by Clarence Thomas or right-wing theocrats) represents anything new or troubling. I think they're being taken in by the window dressing and not listening to what's really being said.

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