July 26, 2004
Addressing the Nation
Martin E. Marty
Some front-rank religious thinkers fed Peter Steinfels (New York Times, July 24) good recommendations for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. I'll add a P.S. by pushing for a little article by Michael E. Bailey and Kristin Lindholm called "Tocqueville and the Rhetoric of Civil Religion in the Presidential Inaugural Addresses" from the Christian Scholar's Review (XXXII:3, Spring 2003), a journal that issues from evangelical and mainstream Christian college faculties. Since the candidates will not have time to read twenty pages, maybe their speech-writers, pastors, counselors, and friends might. It would be great if citizens did, and then read and listened to campaign speeches and inaugural addresses with ears and minds informed by Mr. Bailey and Ms. Lindholm. They take off from Alexis de Tocqueville -- who doesn't? -- and engage in subtle analysis of the 54 inaugural addresses, beginning with counting of key words, from George to George, 1789 to 2000.
What they heard in the first half of our presidential history is very different from what has come up ever since. Originally, inaugural addresses, prime-time summations of presidential philosophies and intentions, had three main elements: 1) modesty; 2) American exceptionalism; 3) accent on "the operations of the Constitution."
No more. Instead, bipartisanly, with boosts from Woodrow Wilson and climax in Ronald Reagan, over a century of talks abandon "civic education," often to partisan or universal acclaim. The three marks now are: 1) immodesty about limitless America; 2) American universalism; and 3) "paeans to America." What the authors' counting and listening turn up amounts to something that prophets in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would have summarized in a simple term: idolatry of the nation. Read the addresses and see what we have heard for so long; it has lost the power to shock. As a result, the possibilities for civic education, moral clarification, and refinement of intention are forgotten.
Since FDR, "God is still invoked, but America's real faith is faith in America: not in the government, not in the Constitution, not strictly speaking, in the people (though this comes closer), but in America as Idea. The American way is God's way," and offers a "glimpse of perfection." "God Bless America" now means -- what? "In championing America, presidents use the poetic and priestly moment of the inaugural to celebrate the infinite potentialities of humanity," American style. America is not a place: "It is spirit." Since Wilson, "America is the secular proxy for the Kingdom of God ... America is that land where the finite merges with the infinite." Americans are to use their freedom and technology "to allow humanity -- not a sovereign God -- to govern its destiny." "The concept of America crowds out our other identities." The authors think that the best speeches should "make the audience consider itself in new ways."
The authors quote Cynthia Toolin: This is all a "self-congratulatory religion." One would believe, or like to believe, that there is some hunger for return to the earlier style of inaugural addresses. There must be some market for moral and civic education and not worship of nation and, hence, of self. Serious question: could a candidate be elected who doesn't address the public this way?
Note: For copies of the Bailey/Lindholm article ($8), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.csreview.org. The graphs are especially impressive and illustrate their points about American "civil religion." "Mentions of the Divine Per Address" are fairly consistent; their meanings now differ. "Constitutionally" disappears, through time, to be replaced by "America," "American," and "Americans."