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How Bush speaks in religious code

George W. Bush believes God has called him to be president. You won't hear him say so openly, of course, but he regularly conveys this to a core constituency -- the religious right.

As president, Bush has always been outspoken about his faith, letting evangelicals know he shares their values and vision for America. But he has also been careful. Aware that he must appeal to the center to secure reelection, he employs double-coded signals that veil much of his religious message from outsiders. Biblical references, allusions to hymns, and specialized vocabulary are keys to this communication.

The president learned this art when he served as his father's liaison to the religious right in 1988, just after his born-again conversion. Well-connected staff introduced him to evangelical leaders and taught him to win their trust. "Signal early and signal often" was their motto. Unlike his Episcopalian father, the younger Bush took this advice to heart.

Accordingly, most of Bush's speeches are discreetly larded with religious content. His seemingly secular acceptance speech at the recent Republican National Convention offers a case in point. Beyond the single paragraph on abortion, gay marriage, and "faith-based" charities, a strong religious subtext was carefully crafted to slip beneath the radar.

Biblical references were firmly planted at the beginning and end of the speech. Early on, Bush spoke of "hills to climb" and seeing "the valley below," an allusion to Israel's escape from slavery and Moses' vision of the Promised Land, as described in Deuteronomy 34. Given the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous use of the same passage ("I've been to the mountaintop"), Bush thus associated himself with both King and Moses, characterizing his presidency not just as a struggle for freedom, but a religious mission with risks of martyrdom.

In his closing paragraph, Bush quoted Ecclesiastes 3, "To everything there is a season," but quickly departed from the Biblical text. "A time for sadness," he began, with reference to 9/11, then "a time for struggle" -- Afghanistan and Iraq -- and finally "a time for rebuilding." This pattern of loss followed by recovery recurred in passages devoted to the economy, the war against terrorism, the national mood, and the state of morality since the 1960s.

In all cases, Bush described losses overcome through hope, steadfastness, and faith. Only when he reached his culminating example did he name what he saw in them all. "For as long as our country stands," he proclaimed, "people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: Here buildings fell, and here a nation rose." Resurrection. Lower Manhattan may be a case in point, but it was not the point of the story.

Twelve times Bush used the phrase "I believe," many more than any other. Sometimes it meant only "I hold this opinion," and sometimes it marked a profession of faith. But repetition hammered home the crucial point: Bush is a man who believes.

Two of these beliefs were meant to justify his wars as holy. The first -- "I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century" -- prompts a question: Called by whom? The second helps answer that query: "I believe freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman." And, a bit later: "Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom."

In the course of his speech, the president thus suggested he is a pious man, called to lead a righteous nation. Like the nation itself, he is committed to a sacred cause and is guided in all things by his Christian faith. His sole concern in Iraq -- so he insists -- is to spread freedom, and in doing this he serves the Almighty. If you heard that and can accept it, it must be terribly reassuring.

Rather less comforting is the realization that Bush is selling his dubious war to the base he has skillfully courted for years, which he knows to be credulous, fiercely patriotic, and enormously loyal.

Bruce Lincoln is a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago and author of "Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11." 

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