- “And No One Will Keep That Light from Shining”: Civil Religion after September 11 in Speeches of George W. Bush
Nicole Janz, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, U.K., has undertaken a new look at George W. Bush’s rhetorical leadership in a study designed to debunk European and some lingering U.S. perceptions that Bush interpreted and acted upon his presidency as an evangelical mission preordained by God. The charge, often media based, that Bush was overly religious and his religiosity made him an exceptional figure in the pantheon of U.S. presidents, is attacked by Janz through the interpretive frame provided by Robert Bellah’s seminal treatise on civil religion.
Janz limits her analysis of Bush’s public address to speeches and remarks delivered from September 11, 2001, to March 19, 2003, the last speech President Bush delivered prior to the Iraq War. She further limits her study only to those “speeches addressed to the American people or to their representatives in Congress rather than those given to international representatives” (4). Though she cites 44 speeches in total, we do not receive a definitive rationale nor concrete criteria for how and why certain speeches for domestic audiences were selected and certain others left out. We are reminded, however, that since 9/11 there has been “a renewed awareness of the term American civil religion” and that scholars have found evidence that America’s “mission to protect freedom” often provides presidents with justificatory arguments for going to war (8). Presidential addresses targeted to multiple audiences in the United States garner vast media coverage and can appeal to mass audiences. The selected time period, of course, can be critical in helping us apprehend the rhetorical strategies President Bush employed in justifying the invasion of Afghanistan, arguing for Homeland Security, increasing the defense budget, and finally, marshaling support for the Iraq war (5). Thus, Janz’s focus on Bellah’s [End Page 369] concept of American civil religion as a critical methodology for analysis and interpretation of the president’s addresses to various audiences in the United States in the run up to the Iraq War would seem to provide a useful foundation for detecting or denying Bush’s appropriation of civil religious discourse.
This brief book unfolds in three parts. Part One, “Introduction,” is comprised of the first two chapters. Chapter 1 discusses problems associated with Bush’s “God” talk and covers the research questions, scope, methodology, and structure of the book, as well as previous studies relevant to the task at hand. Chapter 2 defines Bellah’s concept of civil religion, defends his work from critics, and establishes a working definition of civil religion, as well as the specific criteria that will be employed in the analysis of Bush’s discourse. Janz resurrects Bellah’s work from a history of withering critical attack and relative inattention in recent years with the following rationale: “[T]he attempt to find a convincing alternative has so far been unsuccessful” (17). As I will note later in this review, this foundational claim may be open to further interrogation.
Part Two, “Civil Religion in Presidential Speeches,” is fleshed out in three chapters. Chapter 3 discusses Bush’s evangelical faith, and then sets about analyzing Bush’s speeches by applying Bellah’s key criteria for identifying civil religion—God and mission, freedom, sacrifice, and rebirth—all of which, Janz concludes, serve as unifying modes of appeal to rally the nation. This analysis is undertaken to answer the key line of inquiry motivating the study: “[D]id Bush really use overly religious language that stands out from his predecessors? Or did he stay within the traditional rhetoric of U.S. presidents, expressed through American civil religion?” (23). Chapter 4 offers a comparison of Bush’s civil religious discourse to that of other presidents using the same criteria found in chapter 3. The intent here is to...