President Bush echoes Lincoln's biblical rhetoric

Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 1:08 a.m.

Abraham Lincoln he's not. But as a public speaker, President George W. Bush at least shares his Republican predecessor's fondness for biblical phrases.

That presumably reflects a practice of regular Scripture reading that began when Bush experienced a spiritual renewal and joined a men's Bible study in Midland, Texas.

Presumably it also reflects his choice of Michael Gerson, a graduate of the evangelical Wheaton (Ill.) College, to be his main speechwriter.

Bush echoed the tone, though not the words, of Lincoln and the biblical prophets when he addressed a black audience Dec. 12 in the wake of Sen. Trent Lott's racially tinged remarks:

``Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals. And the founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was (sic) and remains today the equal dignity and equal rights of every American.''

Addressing the nation on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, the president recited Scripture verbatim, praying that all whose sense of safety was threatened ``will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: `Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.'''

Bush used another biblical quotation upon the first anniversary of the attacks, as the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor provided a theatrical televised backdrop.

He concluded by evoking America's dedication to human dignity and said this ideal ``drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.''

The ``light'' in the scriptural original (John 1:5) did not refer to humanistic ideals but the coming to humanity of the divine Jesus Christ.

Lincoln similarly lifted biblical phrases from the original context and applied them to secular, though moral and nonpartisan, purposes. Perhaps the most famous example came early in the ``house divided'' speech that opened his 1858 U.S. Senate campaign. He paraphrased Jesus' saying in Mark 3:25 and Matthew 12:25, ``a house divided against itself cannot stand,'' then continued:

``I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided.''

Bush rather deftly evoked religious themes at the Dec. 5 lighting of the national Christmas tree, one of those innumerable little ceremonies that crowd a president's datebook:

``The simple story we remember during this season speaks to every generation. It is the story of a quiet birth in a little town, on the margins of an indifferent empire. Yet that single event set the direction of history and still changes millions of lives. For over two millennia, Christmas has carried the message that God is with us - and, because He's with us, we can always live in hope.''

The same day as those Christian remarks, the pluralistic president visited Washington's Islamic Center to mark the Eid al-Fitr, one of the year's two major Muslim festivals. He paid tribute to the Ramadan season, which observes the giving of the Quran and calls Islamic believers ``to refocus their minds on faith and redirect their hearts to charity.''

Making politically useful points, Bush said Muslims demonstrate ``a spirit of tolerance'' and their faith ``brings hope and comfort to more than a billion people'' as it ``affirms God's justice and insists on man's moral responsibility.''

The day before, he had honored Judaism at the lighting of the White House Hanukkah menorah, stating that the festival ``brings a message of hope - that light will overcome darkness, that goodness will overcome evil and that faith can accomplish miracles.''

Was there a conscious hint of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address in Bush's first inaugural?:

``We are not this story's Author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet his purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.''

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