Thursday, August 03, 2006

When Presidents Theologize

Most of the time, when politicians hold forth on spiritual issues, you can expect a heavy dose of blather.

For example, consider this from a New York Times story cited by Ann Althouse last April:
A Roman Catholic who has struggled at times to talk about his own faith, Mr. Kerry also told the group that he believed "deeply in my faith" and that the Koran, the Torah, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles had influenced a social conscience that he exercised in politics.
This isn't a confession of faith on Kerry's part, but pandering. We shouldn't expect candidates for public office to make confessions. But it would be nice if they would be genuine when they do decide to talk about faith.

When not engaging in such silly posturing, most US pols are likely to hold forth on what can only be called Christianity Lite, employing language that seems pious, but actually reflects a worldview that idolizes the nation, human ingenuity, or self-righteousness. President Bush's second Inaugural message exemplifies this approach. Most egregious of all of Bush's Inaugural assertions from a Christian perspective was this statement:
There is only one force that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and the tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
That sort of gives short shrift to the grace of God, mediated to repentant sinners through Jesus Christ, which the Bible asserts is the only force that can truly transform humanity.

Recently, at Hugh Hewitt's urging, I wrote a series of pieces on Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. It is that rarest of political proclamations: one worthy of the designation, sermon.

It should be said that for most of his career as a public man, Lincoln was as guilty of using religious metaphors and metaphysic assumptions in purely political terms as Kerry and Bush were in the foregoing examples. But there is something enormously refreshing about Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. In it, you find a politician genuinely wrestling with the theological lessons of his era. (As I put it when I first discussed the speech with Hewitt, Lincoln exegetes the Civil War.) Lincoln avoided pandering, sloganeering, national triumphalism, and idolatry. He clearly seems to be working from a Biblical text, just as preachers do on Sunday mornings.

It's a brave speech, one in which he accepted personal blame for the long bloody war in which his country was engaged, assigned culpability to North and South, and hinted at a Reconstruction program that would be more reconciliation--akin to the process headed by Archbiship Desmond Tutu in post-apartheid South Africa--than retribution. It appealed to the nation's "better angels," people's capacity for accepting blame as well as responsibility, rather than to any pretense of moral superiority. Yes, Lincoln said that the war in which the nation was engaged must be seen to its conclusion and that soldiers and their families needed the nation's support. But he saw the war as a blight upon the nation, a judgment against America for slavery and indifference to slavery.

As James Takach writes in Lincoln's Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address, that the speech has much in common with New England's election day orations that were, in the early days, delivered by members of the clergy and called the people to repentance and renewal as they addressed the public business.

At the risk of throwing the cat among the pigeons, I can think of only one presidential address in my lengthening lifetime that made any attempt to call the nation to repentance and renewal like this. It was Jimmy Carter's famous or infamous national malaise speech. (Referred to in this way, although the word malaise never appeared in its text.)

Frustrated by the recalcitrance of a Congress seemingly answerable to special interest groups and also influenced by a reading of The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch's dead-on analysis of the American mood back then, Carter, after having called an extraordinary cross-section of American leaders and thinkers to meet with him at Camp David, delivered an address in which he said, in part:
Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?

It's clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper -- deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as president I need your help. So I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America...

These ten days confirmed my belief in the decency and the strength and the wisdom of the American people, but it also bore out some of my long-standing concerns about our nation's underlying problems...

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy...
Carter went on to describe an erosion of trust on the part of the American people in their institutions and a rising culture of self-indulgence coupled with lowered expectations for the future. He also delineated a plan of action to address these issues.

But Carter's speech didn't work and was, in fact, effectively used against him in the 1980 presidential contest by the eventual winner, former California governor Ronald Reagan. There were undoubtedly many reasons that Carter's speech didn't make a positive dent on the American public, but the biggest one was probably its rambling quality.

In his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln was direct, eloquent, and to the point. In his signature speech, Carter quoted advice that he received from people and delivered tributes to the American ego before getting to his point. The claim being made by his opponents--and even by those from whom he sought advice--that he was failing to lead seemed to be underscored by this rhetorical approach. It had no doubt been designed to demonstrate his responsiveness in those post-Watergate years when leaders were at pains to prove that they were little-d democrats. There also can be no doubt that the speech was authentically rooted in Carter's Christian sensibilities, with its belief in the importance of confession.

But through his extensive quotation of other people, Carter seemed to betray a lack of confidence in the intrinsic validity of the basic assertions he was making about America in 1979 and about what needed to be done. Lincoln quoted Scripture, but he did so without apology and offered both his diagnosis and prescription without resort to a cast of thousands, as Carter later did.

Of course, this brief comparison of a speech by Lincoln and one by Carter is inherently unfair to our thirty-ninth president. Lincoln is an icon and though I have much respect for Carter as a writer, none of our chief executives has had the sixteenth president's mastery of the English language.

But the comparison is unfair in another sense. After issuing his call for national repentance and renewal, Carter faced the electorate as he sought a second term. The nation, in essence, issued a judgment of no confidence to him. Lincoln, by contrast, was tragically cut down by an assassin one month after delivering his second Inaugural Address.

The question is: How would the nation have responded to Lincoln's address and its call for repentance and renewal had he not been killed by John Wilkes Booth?

Subsequent events suggest it would not have been well-received. His far less-able and personally rigid successor, Andrew Johnson, enraged the radical Republican Congress with his pursuit of a forgiving Reconstruction program, so much so that he was impeached, though not removed from office. Lincoln was clearly an abler politician than Johnson, but given the usual deterioration of support enjoyed by war leaders after conflicts have ended--think of George H.W. Bush following the Persian Gulf War, Winston Churchill following World War Two, Woodrow Wilson after World War One, and the barely-victorious Harry Truman after the Second World War--Lincoln's wiliness might not have been enough to carry the day for a policy of even-handed, selfless repentance as commended in his Inaugural Address.

All of which brings us to a disturbing thought: Maybe one reason that major American politicians have shied away from anything like authentic theologizing isn't just that they're not inclined to do so, it's that it's impolitic to do so. The track record suggests that any theologizing that goes beyond pandering is going to lose you votes. And even then, you may not win.

[At Hugh Hewitt's urging, I'm slowly working on a possible book on Presidents and their faith. This is part of that process. To read my seven-part analysis of Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, go here.]

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