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We Provide the Context, So Slate Doesn't Have To:

Today's Bushism of the Day:

"That's called, 'A Charge To Keep,' based upon a religious hymn. The hymn talks about serving God. The president's job is never to promote a religion." -- Showing German newspaper reporter Kai Diekmann the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2006

Here's the full context:

These are all Texas paintings.... [Discussion of Texas paintings, and also of the paintings of Washington and Lincoln, omitted. -EV]

That's called "A Charge to Keep," based upon a religious hymn. The hymn talks about serving God. The President's job is never to promote a religion. The great thing about America--and Germany, for that matter--is that you should be able to worship freely. I like to tell people, you're equally American whether you're a Jew, Muslim, Christian, or atheist--you're equally all Americans--and that if we ever lose that, we begin to look like the Taliban.

I understand, in parts of Europe, some scoff at my faith. It doesn't bother me. But I happen to believe, for me at least, faith is one way to make sure that my values stay intact and that I keep life in proper perspective, which is a very important part, in my judgment, of being a good decisionmaker.

Sounds to me like the President was showing a foreign journalist around the Oval Office. While showing the journalist the paintings and explaining what they meant to him, Bush came to this painting (thanks to BAGnewsNotes for the pointer) and noted that its title was based on a religious hymn that Bush apparently finds inspirational. He then realized that this reference to religion might draw criticism from some (especially by foreigners who aren't fully aware of how American political life works); and he thought it would be good to point out that the President generally ought not promote a religion, but is entitled to be influenced by his religion. It's hard for me to see anything particular inarticulate, unwise, choppy, inexplicable, or even funny about this.

But in any case, doesn't the quote seen in context -- with an explanation for why he was talking about the painting, and with more details of what he was trying to say about religion -- seem different than the quote provided out of context?

Wrigley:
I think Slate's intended comedy had nothing to do with the context. Instead, it was the irony of Bush (of all people) saying that the president should promote a religion.

Agree or disagree that Bush does promote a religion (and thus whether the line is humorous), but I don't think any context matters.
5.22.2006 3:17pm
Wrigley:
Should have read " . . . Bush (of all people) saying that the president should NOT promote a religion."
5.22.2006 3:18pm
Christopher Cooke:
I don't see this Bushism as particularly funny. Maybe it is intended to be ironic: that Bush, with his "faith based initiatives" and wearing his religion very prominently on his sleeve, is now saying the President's job is not to promote a religion. Still, I don't get it. I agree with the Professor on this one, this "Bushism" seems pointless and not funny.
5.22.2006 3:32pm
Wrigley:
I'll concede that most of Weisberg's "Bushisms" aren't that funny (nor is this one). But, again, I don't see what the context adds or takes away from the line.
5.22.2006 3:36pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Wrigley's got it. The proper context in which this quote should be placed includes the absurd "faith-based" euphemism, abstinence sex ed programs, the anti-abortion global gag rule... not to mention the "axis of evil" and "crusade." That Bush thinks a U.S. President should not promote a religion is news to everyone. I wonder, though, if, more importantly, he believes that the President cannot promote a religion?
5.22.2006 3:36pm
C. Wesley:
Second stanza:

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master's will!
5.22.2006 3:51pm
Monkberrymoon (mail):
I'm so sick of this whining about the word "crusade". I mean, jeezus, the word has been used for years without a particularly religious connotation, but when this guy says it, everyone freaks out and thinks he's gonna build a church (complete with hated Nativity scene) in the well of the Senate. When Eisenhower wrote "Crusade in Europe" or whatever it was, was he accused of "promoting religion"? And if the Muslims had quit bitchin' about the (capital-c) Crusades and actually done something, maybe they wouldn't be history's "D" students.
5.22.2006 3:58pm
Steve P. (mail):
I'm unpersuaded by Ship's argument. It's a logical stretch to say that promoting abstinence-only programs is the equivalent of promoting Christianity. Even taken in aggregate, correlation doesn't prove causation.

Wrigley does have it right in my eyes... these 'Bushisms' aren't intended to be factually accurate, they're intended to show some irony, hipocricy, or [insert negative word] in the Bush administration. Honestly, they ran out of great material years ago, once he started prepping more and getting used to the art of political-speak. Even more honestly, I think that both Prof. Volokh and I have thought about this far more than it deserves.
5.22.2006 4:02pm
Jared K.:
I don't see it that way. Instead I see the Slate people as thinking it's funny that because he said "the Presiden'ts job is never to promote a religion" when really the President's job is to lead the executive branch, sign bills into law, make nominations and appointments, and all the other fun things in Article II. Not promoting a religion is an aspect of being the federal government, but hardly qualifies as "the President's job."
I'd agree it's not terribly funny, but that's what I thought the point was and I don't think extra context takes away from the silliness of the statement.
5.22.2006 4:08pm
K Ashford (mail):
I think you miss the point of many of these Bushisms.

The issue often isn't why he says what he says, but the way he says what he says. Put simply, Bush knack for stating the obvious, in simplistic terms, as if talking to a first-grader.

While no single Bushism proves this peculiar aspect to Bush, comments like these (and the now famous "decider" quote) suggest a tendancy to state obvious truisms as if they are some deep revelation. This is just another data point in that particular collection.

Do you really think, for example, that a foreign journalist isn't aware that the President isn't supposed to promote a religion?
5.22.2006 4:11pm
wm13:
Ship Erect: what religion do you think Bush is promoting? Catholicism maybe? (The Pope probably agrees with all the initiatives you cite.) But how would that fit in with Fritz Hollings' claim that Bush is in thrall to the Jews? I wish people like you would say what they mean, rather than merely suggest that, oh, a great deal might be said.
5.22.2006 4:16pm
Huh:
Is the impact of Slate's Bushisms so great that this need be a constant battle between Volokh and the online magazine? Really?

Furthermore, I don't see how it's possible NOT to view Bush as a "promoter" of Christianity. Maybe he thinks he's not a promoter because he's not endorsing a particular sect or denomination, but seriously, this is ironic. It's ironic because lots of people are quite justifiably certain that Bush is a promoter of Christianity. He's right, of course, that it's not a president's job to engage in such promotion. He does it for free, but there shouldn't be serious doubt that he does it.

And by the way, I don't think there's anything wrong with promoting Christianity. Or even making political decisions within such a framework. That seems well short of "establishing" a religion in a constitutional sense.
5.22.2006 4:22pm
Bob Loblaw (www):

But I happen to believe, for me at least, faith is one way to make sure that my values stay intact and that I keep life in proper perspective, which is a very important part, in my judgment, of being a good decisionmaker.

Shouldn't that be "decider"?
5.22.2006 4:34pm
HBD:
I'm with Eugene on this one. The initial idea behind the "Bushisms" was that Bush says a lot of things that don't make any sense at all - it was all about mangling the English language. The point isn't whether you agree with Bush's broad claim or not, but how poorly the claim was articulated.

In this sense, context is key because while Bush's comment wasn't especially elequent, it doesn't seem to rise to a level of incoherence that it would warrant the "Bushism" label. It seems that the need to keep this as a running bit for years has resulted in a defining down of the term. Perhaps this is the best we should expect from Weisberg at this stage... seems like a "soft bigotry" if you ask me.
5.22.2006 4:39pm
CJColucci:
Short answer to the question asked: No. A lot of other vaguely related things we could talk about -- like, is this a particularly funny or representative Bushism? -- would take a bit longer, but does the context, such as it is, change anything? No. Unless the mere existence of a context is the point.
5.22.2006 4:43pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Ship Erect: what religion do you think Bush is promoting?

Is this a trick question? Generally, Christianity; specifically, nondenominational conservative American Protestantism. I'm sure that the Pope would agree with much of Bush's social policy; so what? And who cares what Fritz Hollings thinks?

However, I think that promoting Christianity is the vehicle by which the White House consolidates power, rather than being an end in itself; see John DiIulio's experience, for example.
5.22.2006 4:55pm
Smithy (mail) (www):
Why does the MSM make so little effort to hide its hatred for Bush?

And I must say that this quote says it all in terms of why people of faith continue to support this president, through thick and thin, no matter what the liberal pundits tell them to think.


I understand, in parts of Europe, some scoff at my faith. It doesn't bother me. But I happen to believe, for me at least, faith is one way to make sure that my values stay intact and that I keep life in proper perspective, which is a very important part, in my judgment, of being a good decisionmaker.



Amen.
5.22.2006 4:56pm
wood turtle (mail):
Slightly off-topic, but I found the context of the hymn and painting to be unrelated. What does having a God to glorify, charge to keep, and never-dying soul have to do with going up a mountain on horseback?
5.22.2006 5:04pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
And I must say that this quote says it all in terms of why people of faith continue to support this president, through thick and thin, no matter what the liberal pundits tell them to think.

Indeed, it does say it all--however reckless the decision, some people will continue to support Bush as long as he keeps talking about his religion.
5.22.2006 5:21pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
Bush clearly and correctly communicated his point. That is more than I can say for his critics who have left comments here.
5.22.2006 5:22pm
Smithy (mail) (www):
That is more than I can say for his critics who have left comments here.

Even out of context, Bush communicates more clearly than those on the left, whose relativism and mushiness have reduced their speech to meaningless anger. It's good to have a president who says whae he means and means what he says. And who knows that this is a Christian nation.
5.22.2006 5:45pm
TomJ:
Wrigley,

What, in your view, is the purpose served by the first two sentences of the Bushism? It seems that the irony of Bush claiming he doesn't endorse religion is adequately captured by the final sentence: "The president's job is never to promote a religion." The first two sentences, it seems to me, are intended to make Bush's claim to neutrality look particularly foolish, given the fact that he just showed a foreign reporter a religiously-inspired painting prominently displayed in the Oval Office. If that's the case, why isn't it relevant to know how Bush thinks that displaying the painting might nevertheless be appropriate for an American president?
5.22.2006 6:09pm
John McCall (mail):
Slate is mainstream media? Or does that term simply mean anything balanced to the left of Little Green Footballs?
5.22.2006 6:13pm
KeithK (mail):
TomJ, how is putting a religiously inspired painting in your office equivalent to promoting religion? Especially a painting that, as wood turtle pointed out, has little if any religious symbolism in it (at least to my first glance)? It's not like Bush has put a picture of Jesus complete with halo on the one dollar bill.
5.22.2006 6:26pm
R. Gould-Saltman (mail):
Smithy sez:

Even out of context, Bush communicates more clearly than those on the left, whose relativism and mushiness have reduced their speech to meaningless anger. It's good to have a president who says whae he means and means what he says. And who knows that this is a Christian nation.

. . . and there we have, neatly encapsulated, why this week's Bushism is funny (in addition to the gramatically correct but goofy sounding formulation that "The President's job is to not...". )It's incongruously inconsistent with what significant numbers of Bush's own supporters think he believes, notions of which he has not gone to any pains to disabuse them, and which they continue to tout as a basis for preferring him, and his annointed heir, to the "secular humanist" Democrats.

You know, as a Buddhist, I'm PRETTY confident that when Bush Republicans talk about restoring prayer to public school, etc., they're not planning on asking me to write'em.

r gould-saltman
5.22.2006 6:51pm
TomJ:
KeithK,

I don't believe it is. I'm merely stating what I believe to be the purpose of the Bushism-to make Bush appear foolish by juxtaposing his presentation of religiously-themed artwork in the Oval Office with his statement that his job is not to promote religion.

This is where the context helps-it explains that Bush does NOT believe he is promoting religion by displaying the painting; he is merely drawing on it for personal inspiration. (As you mention, the visual also helps because it is not an overtly religious painting.)
5.22.2006 6:51pm
TallDave (mail) (www):
That wacky Bush, always talking about crazy things like "freedom" and "democracy."

It's just embarassing, I tell you. Why can't we have an intelligent, articulate President who will hold meaningful debates over the meaning of the word "is?"
5.22.2006 7:27pm
TallDave (mail) (www):
R. Gould-Saltman,

Sure, but as a Christian, if you belong to a predominantly Buddhist public school what gives me the right to say "Sorry, no praying to Buddha" if your children want to pray? (Or, for that matter, if he's the only Buddhist in the school?)

I think this whole separation of Church and State thing is way overblown these days. It's supposed to be freedom of religion, not freedom to impose secularism on everyone everywhere connected with gov't.
5.22.2006 7:33pm
R. Gould-Saltman (mail):
TallDave:

I don't know your background, or even your age; suffice to say that when I started elementary school, even in liberal pinko Northern California, c. 1959, we were expected to "say grace" over our milk and cookies, and that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas didn't figure in what we were expected to say.

I won't discuss the required Christmas music, except to note that if your public school Christmas program was primarily secular, you weren't working from the same songbooks we were.

If my kid wants to pray, in his public school, he can do so, as long as he doesn't demand
that everyone stop doing whatever else they're doing, or that the school designate a time in the school day to do so, or
that the other students stop and listen to him.


People pray silently to themselves all the time. Buddhists do it. Quakers do it. A plausible argument can be made, from scripture (Mat. 6:6) that ALL Christians are supposed to do it. As far as I know, Jews CAN do it; I'm not clear on Islam's dictate on the subject.

Hypotheticals aside for the moment, there simply ISN'T much significant history of anybody EXCEPT Christians demanding imposed religious observance in American public schools. AND, BTW, the religious Right has not, until relatively recently, even tried to make a pretense that this has to do with the rights of anyone EXCEPT Christians. Much though they want to paint a picture of a vast "War on Christ" being waged in the US (their words, not mine), really, in my view, they're objecting to being deprived of a forum.

Smithy's statement of his view is, at least, unequivocal: this is a CHRISTIAN nation; the rest of us all can lump it.
5.22.2006 8:53pm
TallDave (mail) (www):
Well, the school was predominantly Christian, as are most U.S. schools. If I emigrated to a place that was primarily Buddhist, I wouldn't expect them to stop being Buddhists in school for my benefit, or growse about their failure to include "Jingle Bells" decades later.
5.22.2006 9:05pm
TallDave (mail) (www):
imposed religious observance in American public schools

That implies some punishment for failure to observe a religion, as opposed to people voluntarily celebrating their religion.
5.22.2006 9:08pm
BobN (mail):

But I happen to believe, for me at least, faith is one way to make sure that my values stay intact and that I keep life in proper perspective, which is a very important part, in my judgment, of being a good decisionmaker.


Well, it's pretty apparent that it's not helping a great deal with that last bit at least.
5.22.2006 9:19pm
Smithy (mail) (www):

I think this whole separation of Church and State thing is way overblown these days. It's supposed to be freedom of religion, not freedom to impose secularism on everyone everywhere connected with gov't.


Very well put. One could even argue that secularism is a form of religion at this point.
5.22.2006 9:45pm
dick thompson (mail):
I think that all Bush was doing was putting his statement into context for a German reporter who might not be totally conversant with the US beliefs as opposed to the German beliefs. By making sure that the reporter got what he was saying in the context he meant it, Bush was just showing good judgment and putting the reporter into the picture and at ease. The reporter was just trying to be snarky and when the whole context came out, the snarkiness should have been obvious unless you didn't want it to be obvious. As one can see from many of the comments here, a lot of the commenters want the president to look stupid rather than polite.
5.22.2006 9:54pm
Bored In Seattle:
Why do you want to keep beating this dead horse? You have long since made your point that the Slate Bushism column is somewhat dishonest journalism. You diminish yourself by continuing to obsess on an intellectual pygmy like Jacob Weisberg. Pick on somone your own (intellectual) size!
5.23.2006 2:47am
K Ashford (mail):
"Bush clearly and correctly communicated his point"

Yes -- a rather obvious point: "The President's job is never to promote a religion."

It would be like me saying "My job as a lawyer is to not steal the client's money".

Sure, such a statement is correct (albeit underinclusive), and its meaning can easily be divined. But that's what makes it a Bushism -- saying something patently obvious as if the listener is a moron.
5.23.2006 11:30am
digoweli:
I don't believe Bush speaks English the National Language of his party but I agree with you about this context. Such out of context quotes were worthy of Karl Rove or the Swift Boaters. It's not good to imitate the worst of those who are without honor.

digoweli
5.23.2006 12:30pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
It would be like me saying "My job as a lawyer is to not steal the client's money".
If you said that while returning the unused portion of a retainer fee that I paid you, then I would find the statement natural and appropriate.
5.23.2006 2:22pm
Kevin P. (mail):

Do you really think, for example, that a foreign journalist isn't aware that the President isn't supposed to promote a religion?


I travel abroad frequently and listen to and read foreign news sources. I would not make any assumptions about foreign journalists' knowledge of the United States.
5.23.2006 2:40pm