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January 19, 2005

In big speeches, Bush cites God more often than predecessors did, analysis shows

In his second inaugural address tomorrow, George W. Bush will likely invoke God, as presidents nearly always do on such occasions. But what makes Bush unique is how much he talks about God, and what he says when he does so.


Bush referenced a higher power 10 times in his first inaugural four years ago, and another 14 times in his three State of the Union addresses combined.


No other president since Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 has mentioned God so often in his inaugural and State of the Union speeches, according to an analysis conducted at the University of Washington and the University of Illinois.


“In these ritualized occasions, any religious language becomes fused with American identity,” said David Domke, a UW associate professor of communication who conducted the study with Kevin Coe, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. “In placing so much emphasis on God, Bush is making clear his view that the nation has a divinely created place in the world.”


The closest to Bush’s average of six references per major address is Ronald Reagan, who averaged 4.75 in his comparable speeches.


Jimmy Carter, considered one of the most pious of presidents, mentioned God only twice in four addresses, according to the analysis. Other also-rans in God references were Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson — also wartime presidents — at 1.69 and 1.5 references per speech, respectively.


Bush also talks about God differently than most other modern presidents, the researchers found.

Presidents since Roosevelt have commonly spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing, favor and guidance. By contrast, Domke said, Bush’s pronouncements position him as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world.


Among modern presidents, the researchers found, only Reagan spoke in a similar manner — and he did so far less often than has Bush.


For example, Bush said in 2003 that “the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”


“This is not a request for divine favor, it is a declaration of divine wishes,” said Domke, whose 2004 book, “God Willing?” analyzed religious language in hundreds of the administration’s public communications and subsequent news reports.


“It’s one thing to state that there is a God and that Americans should listen to Him, which is what presidents have generally done,” Domke said. “In contrast, Bush speaks as if he knows exactly what God wants.”


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For more information, contact Domke at (206) 685-1739 or domke@u.washington.edu.