State of the "spot the code words" game

And the man in the lighthouse said: What was that sound? That sound you do not hear is the major media's silence about evangelical "code words" in President George W. Bush's State of the Union address. I've been watching and listening and, so far, all is quiet. Now, is that a story? If so, what is the story behind the silence?

It does help that Christianity Today, the flagship of evangelical media, has published an online commentary about the speech that notes the "values vote" themes that were present and raises interesting questions about the relative silence on others. The headline was instructive: "More Culture of Life, Please -- We like what we heard, we just didn't hear enough of it."

In a way, argued CT, the dip in presidential Godtalk is healthy, especially on the global front.

Fortunately, the President is the commander in chief, not the theologian in chief. Political rhetoric aside, Christians know that human freedom cannot bring lasting peace and prosperity˜only the sovereign Lord of history can do that. Nor can freedom fill our greatest need, which is peace with God. That being said, we rejoice in the spread of political freedom around the world and pray it will lead not only to shalom with neighbor but increased opportunities for shalom with God.

Clearly, the two big ideas in this speech were Social Security and global freedom, round II. This may have left some of the president's strongest supporters in evangelical pulpits and pews wondering about the relative absence of the cultural and moral issues that matter so much to them. Here is how CT addressed this:

Viewers who had to tuck their kids into bed may have missed the President's brief remarks on life issues. . . . (In) an hour-long address, the President devoted but two short paragraphs to what we'd broadly call "life issues" (for lack of a better term). The words were good, but they were too few if he is really serious about building a "culture of life." This brevity in the midst of the nation's unfolding moral confusion is unsettling. Why is he bold and visionary on economic issues that may affect our children and grandchildren, but strangely reticent on the very definitions of human life and community? While "values voters" certainly care about Social Security, they didn't return Bush to office on this basis.

Granted, the President is not the nation's senior pastor. But his words and actions can set a tone that allows a culture of life to flourish.

It would be inaccurate to say that the president did not focus on the family at all. Far down in the body of the speech, he did briefly tip his hat -- gently, ever so gently -- toward the front lines of the culture wars. In what was probably both an allusion to his own wild past and to the Baby Boomers in general, the president noted:

So many of my generation, after a long journey, have come home to family and faith, and are determined to bring up responsible, moral children. Government is not the source of these values, but government should never undermine them.

This was followed by a quick mention of the hottest of hot-button issues -- the proposed constitutional amendment to lock in a traditional definition of marriage before "activist judges" can open the door to same-sex unions and other innovations. It would have been impossible to ignore this issue, after the ballot-box trends of election day. It is interesting that Bush did not weave any "code words" into this part of the speech.

Instead, he turned once again to "culture of life" language drawn from the work of Pope John Paul II, noting: "Because a society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable, we must strive to build a culture of life."

At some point, evangelicals and Catholics in the center of the political spectrum are going to start pleading with the president to follow this "culture of life" line of thought on a wide variety of economic and social issues, in addition to abortion and biotech research. This is the largely uncovered story that White House scribe Michael Gerson mentioned a few weeks ago, when he briefly said that one of the most important tensions in this administration is between those advocating a consistent Catholic approach to many issues in public life and those who favor a more Libertarian approach.

How does the "culture of life" apply to Social Security? To health care? To the environment? It would be interesting to hear the president and his team address some of these questions. Let me join the CT editorial in requesting more presidential feedback on such matters. Perhaps some of the White House staffers who file copies of papal encyclicals can pass them around to the skeptics.

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