John Tierney: Bush's Speech Reflected the Main Themes of America's Civil Religion

Roundup: Talking About History

John Tierney, in the NYT (1-21-05):

A week before Mr. Bush's inaugural speech was delivered, Rick Shenkman had a good idea of what he would say. Professor Shenkman, a historian at George Mason University and editor of the History News Network Web site, had concluded that inaugural addresses sound so much alike because America has a" civil religion" that forces presidents to recite tenets from"a national template first cast at the time of the founding fathers."

Professor Shenkman helpfully published a scorecard for the speech, a list of the recurring themes in previous addresses. Sure enough, by our count, yesterday's speech touched on seven of the themes: deference to God; America's mission to spread freedom, democracy and peace around the globe; America as an example for the world; commitment to tolerance; requirement for national unity; faith in the people's wisdom; and worship of the founding fathers.

Two other themes on the list were the idea that the president is the instrument of the people (which Mr. Bush left unsaid) and the requirement that Americans make sacrifices. While Mr. Bush praised the sacrifices made by soldiers, he didn't explicitly call on the public to make sacrifices - an omission that did not surprise Professor Shenkman.

Before the speech, he predicted that Mr. Bush would leave out that particular tenet. As he reasoned on Tuesday,"Can't call for sacrifice with all those tax cuts."

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