Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Role for Religious Rhetoric in the Public Square

Michael J. Gerson


January 14, 2011
By Michael Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

In recent weeks, a congresswoman and citizens in peaceful assembly suffered a terrible evil, a terrible wrong. And the random cruelty of that act of violence has led Americans to search, once again, for meaning in the midst of tragedy.

As usual, the President led the nation in mourning. And, like leaders before him, President Obama turned to the language of faith. Speaking in Tucson, he quoted Job on the reality of human evil: “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” He quoted the Psalmist on the reality of hope: “God is within her, she will not fail; God will help her at
break of day.”

This is part of a long tradition of American presidential rhetoric. In circumstances like these—circumstances in which suffering is sudden and deeply unfair—a president can hardly stand before the nation and say that death is final; that separation is endless; that the universe is an empty, echoing void. This kind of secularized public rhetoric would
be an act of cruelty, not an act of leadership. In times of tragedy, a president offers a story that makes sense of suffering, a narrative of hope—the hope of reunions, and a love stronger than death, and justice beyond our understanding.

Working for many years in the Bush White House, I lived through events such as these—too many of them. And I know that these words of comfort mean something to people. The criticism of religious rhetoric eventually came—but only after the fact. Skepticism about religious language in the public square is easier once the funerals have ended.

Political figures must be careful in their use of religious ideas. In America, politicians cannot be sectarian. Presidents are not preachers. It is not their proper place or role to promote or impose their own view of salvation. And there is always a danger that government will exploit religion for its own purposes.

But this does not mean that religious quotes and images should be off limits in political discourse. American rhetoric would be impoverished without “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and the vision of “a city on a hill.” This is an important part of our cultural heritage and a valid part of our rhetorical tradition. And the avoidance of sectarianism does not mean a president must be silent about the possibility of hope beyond death and grief. He should not preach, but he is called to comfort. And, in some
circumstances, the only comfort he can offer is faith.

President Obama’s use of religious language was completely appropriate and fully consistent with our history. And it meant something to the people of Tucson and beyond. The use of religion in public rhetoric has important limits—but it also has an important role.

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).   

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”