Saturday, April 09, 2005

On The President's Radio Address on the Pope

I'm interested in how public figures talk religiously, how they include--or exclude--their faith and religious perspectives in their everyday arguments about everyday matters of public concern. When it comes up, I also like to look at how public folks talk about religious things. Given the recent death of the Pope, there's been a lot of things to pay attention to. How does someone like President Bush, representing the religiously diverse United States and being compelled to talk about this prominent religious leader, talk about the Pope?

Since this week's radio address was all about the Pope, I thought I would take a peek at what that our protestant President had to say to all of us about the Catholic Pope.
Good morning. This week I have been in Rome to attend the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II. The ceremonies were a powerful and moving reminder of the profound impact this Pope had on our world. And on behalf of America, Laura and I were honored to pay tribute to this good and holy man.
The president, though acknowledging the Pope's "holiness" seems content to cast the Pope in terms of his effect on the world, rather than his religious identity--even though I suspect that you couldn't have had all the effect without his religion.
During nearly three decades on the Chair of St. Peter, this Pope brought the gospel's message of hope and love and freedom to the far corners of the Earth. And over this past week, millions of people across the world returned the Pope's gift with a tremendous outpouring of affection that transcended differences of nationality, language and religion.
This part of the text seems more overt in its "religiosity," explicating the "gospel's message" for listeners. But, the message is described in fairly universal terms and, through the actions of millions, the message has "transcended" its own religiousness by dramatically reaching and affecting many different folks. Given President Bush's own willingness to underscore the Pope's "historical" influence and persona, though, I wonder how much of this positive public response came from the gospel's message and how much of it was just directed at a man who helped stare down Communism.

But, regardless of his explication of the "gospel's message" and his analysis of its effects, President Bush offers a very nice passage that iconistically represents the transcendant quality of the Pope and his life. Look at how one Pope, sitting in one chair, is able to reach "far corners of the world." And, look at how the paragraph's active agents move from the solitary Pope to millions of people. People who, in turn, make the message even broader and more transcendant. Nicely done. With language and structure like that, I guess all people, regardless of their faith or non-faith, will be brought along with the President in honoring this religious figure.
The call to freedom that defined his papacy was forged in the experiences of Pope John Paul's own life. He came to manhood during the Nazi occupation of his beloved Poland, when he eluded the Gestapo to attend an underground seminary. Later, when he was named Poland's youngest bishop, he came face to face with the other great totalitarianism of the 20th century: Communism. And soon he taught the communist rulers in Warsaw and Moscow that moral truth had legions of its own and a force greater than their armies and secret police.
But, in case folks get a little nervous about all of this religious stuff, Bush defines the Pope's life in very human, and fairly secular terms. The Pope's legacy is rooted in the universal "call to freedom," his life seemed marked by physical struggles that responded to physical forces ("forged," "manhood," "eluded," face to face," etc), and his message was about "moral" truths--a type of truth that includes "religious truths" but not to the exclusion of non-religious ones.

Later on, President Bush offers perhaps the most overtly religious passage in the text:
Everywhere he went, the Pope preached that the call of freedom is for every member of the human family because the Author of Life wrote it into our common human nature.
Though it might be possible to read Bush's other statements in fairly ecumenical and universal ways, it seems hard to read this passage as applicable to anyone but believers. Perhaps this is a point where Bush speaks more as a believer than a representative of all Americans.

In short order, however, President Bush makes the Pope very applicable to all folks in the United States:
The Pope held a special affection for America. During his many visits to our country, he spoke of our providential Constitution, the self-evident truths about human dignity enshrined in our Declaration, and the blessings of liberty that followed from them. It is these timeless truths about man, enshrined in our founding, the Pope said, that have led freedom-loving people around the world to look to America with hope and respect. And he challenged America always to live up to its lofty calling. The Pope taught us that the foundation for human freedom is a universal respect for human dignity. On all his travels, John Paul preached that even the least among us bears the image of our Creator, so we must work for a society where the most vulnerable among us have the greatest claim on our protection.
Despite some criticism from the Pope in the recent years about the War in Iraq and the increasing commercialization and commodification of our society (Europe's too, of course!), the Pope seems in this secyion to tacitly support the concept of American Exceptionalism. If that's the case, it's probably a lot harder for Americans, regardless of their faith, to get too worked up about honoring a man who so honored us!
And by his own courageous example in the face of illness and suffering, he showed us the path to a culture of life where the dignity of every human person is respected, and human life at all its stages is revered and treasured.
Aha! Here is a passage that seems to argue for a "culture of life"--a very religious-conservative thing to argue for. But, rather than citing any religious support, Bush elides everything like Bible passages and quotes from Augustine with this fairly universally applicable image of a courageous, moral--and not particularly religious seeeming--Pope. Is this sneaky of Bush? I don't know. It does seem to work structurally, though, given the rest of the text.

And finally, one more nice passage that gets some good movement in:
As the Pope grew physically weaker, his spiritual bond with young people grew stronger. They flocked to him in his final moments, gathering outside his window to pray and sing hymns and light candles. With them, we honor this son of Poland who became the Bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages.
I like the transition from son, to Bishop, to hero. It goes nicely with the spatial-temporal transformation that moves us from Poland to Rome to "the ages."


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