Erin Wilson on U.S presidents and religious rhetoric

Scholar Erin K Wilson was intrigued to read a comment from an historian that Western societies see themselves as secular, even if they contain large minorities who are actively religious, while Muslim countries and others see the West as Christian. That observation gave rise to a number of questions that Wilson attempts to answer in her book, After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics, which places a special emphasis upon the connection between religion and politics in the United States. Her primary question is, What elements still exist within Western societies that could give the impression that the West is Christian? Secondly, What impact do these perceptions have on the relationship between Western and non-Western states and non-state actors within global politics?

Wilson argues that scholars have underestimated the impact that religion has had, and continues to have, upon politics and public life in Western societies. She understands “the West” to include Europe, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.

George W. Bush, “axis of evil”, “crusade”

U.S. as case study

Wilson uses the U.S. as a case study of a Western country steeped in Judeo-Christian values, tradition and language, although it considers itself a secular nation and its constitution provides for an official separation of church and state. The U.S. is sometimes described as having a “civil religion” – which Wilson says provides a link between Western religious and philosophical traditions and the ideas that shape and influence the beliefs and behaviour of ordinary Americans.

State of the Union addresses

To buttress her point, Wilson provides a “discourse analysis” on State of the Union addresses by six American presidents. “The purpose,” she writes, “is to demonstrate how different elements of religion have become embedded within US political discourse and culture over time to the point their presence is considered ‘natural’.” She describes the “subtle influence of religious ideas, narratives and imagery on shaping community identity and values” in the U.S.

Wilson does not say so, but we can only speculate about how Iran’s theocratic leaders would interpret, for example, George W Bush’s saying that they were part of an “axis of evil” or (after 9\11) that the U.S. was on a “crusade’. State of the Union speeches by American presidents contain a surprising amount of Christian religiosity. Wilson ponders what that might mean in the context of foreign policy and international relations.

Here are a few of the speeches that Wilson analyzes and places in a frame.

Priestly conclusion

Almost all State of the Union addresses end by expressing sentiments that Wilson compares to those of a priest at the end of a religious service.

“With thanks to Almighty God for seeing us through a perilous passage, we ask his help anew in guiding the Good Ship Union’” – John F Kennedy 1963

A special calling

The U.S. has believed since its founding that it has a unique calling and purpose in world history. Wilson describes this as a concept drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition – “where the idea that both individuals and nations can be chosen by God for special purposes is very strong.”

In his State of the Union address in 1990, George H. W. Bush emphasized that the U.S. was “one nation under God” and he then talked about its dreams, vision, hope and destiny – all themes connected with the Judeo-Christian tradition. He said, “And to the children and young people out there tonight: With you rests our hope, all that American will mean in the years and decades ahead. Fix your vision on a new century – your century, on dreams we cannot see, and on destiny that is yours and ours alone.”

U.S. as Christ-like figure

Wilson says that American leaders have seen their country as a Christ-like figure in global politics – bearing, as did Christ, special burdens and responsibilities; being a source of peace, hope, freedom and salvation; and having a special relationship with God. The end result, Wilson writes, is that the U.S. is depicted as superior to other actors in global politics as a result of its ‘likeness’ to Christ.

“How can we not believe in the greatness of America? How can we not do what is right and needed to preserve this last best hope of man on Earth.” – Ronald Reagan, 1984.

Enemies as Satan

Iran’s leaders commonly refer to the U.S. as “the great Satan”, but American politicians have a long tradition of casting their enemies (and those of the West) as demonic. Here is how Franklin Delano Roosevelt described what was at stake in World War II: “No compromise can end that conflict. There never has been – there never can be – successful compromise between good and evil. Only total victory can reward the champions of tolerance, and decency, and freedom, and faith.”

George W. Bush, as mentioned, also demonized American’s enemies in his famous “axis of evil” speech in 2002 in which he singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea. “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, aiming to threaten the peace of the world . . . None of us would ever wish the evil that was done on September 11th . . . We’ve come to know truths that we will never question: evil is real, and it must be opposed.”

Wilson points out that evil is a strong theme in many religions including Judaism and Christianity. The ultimate source of evil in Christianity is Satan and in the Old and New Testaments God and his agents are continually at war with Satan.

Wilson points to the presidential use of religious references and imagery to demonize enemies and to describe a cosmic struggle between good and evil as appealing to the “irrational element” that exists within religions. She says it is that irrational dimension of religion which “is also perhaps the main justification for secularism’s move to exclude religion from public life to begin with.”

Religious influence not recognized 

Ultimately, Wilson’s argument is not that religion is always a benign and positive force in public life – although often it is. She argues, rather, that religion does have an influence but that it has only rarely been recognized or explored by Western scholars. Most often they have a secularist mindset that views religious assumptions as irrelevant to the analysis of politics  — or they lack awareness about embedded religious symbols and values.  Wilson believes her approach, including the analysis of presidential speeches, offers a more open and nuanced way of approaching the issue and one that can lead to valuable insights about Western societies.

What about Canada?

Wilson uses only the U.S. by way of example to illustrate her points. That leaves much territory to be covered. Canada, for example, has no equivalent to the State of the Union address. The Speech from the Throne is most often a dull document and it is delivered by an unelected Governor General. Yet there is much in recent Canadian history and in current politics that could lend itself to following Wilson in probing the nuanced relationship between religious faith and public life.



6 thoughts on “Erin Wilson on U.S presidents and religious rhetoric

  1. Thanks Dennis. This is a book I will get and read! I tried, without success, to get a Kobo version.


  2. Dennis,

    Having worked in North Korea, I have always been struck at the similarity of political rhetoric in that nation with the USA. The jingoistic nationalism that exists in those nations fuels loyalty to their militaries beyond reason. The extreme language used to laud their nations’ status in the world is identical.

    But there is one huge difference between North Korea and the USA: one is an insignificant little bully; the other is a significant big bully

    Jake Buhler


  3. This is very interesting, Dennis. I do think that a little perspective on world events and the U.S. role in them would add some useful knowledge — especially in the case of “the U.S. as a Christ figure.” As I recall from my own study of U.S. history, the feeling of the U.S. as rescuing great parts of the world, began after WWI, when U.S. entry was seen in the U.S., rightly or wrongly, as the crucial factor in the eventual outcome of that war. It was solidified after WWII when, again, the perception was that U.S. entry made the difference in terms of the eventual outcome AND the huge U.S. financial contributions to the reconstruction of a fairly ruined Europe were seen as essential in the eventual recovery of Europe from the ravages of that destructive war.


  4. As someone who comes from a minority ethic/religious tradition, I have always thought of Canada as a Christian society because in so many ways that is my experience of social life and of the law, especially the laws governing individual behaviour. It is only 50 years since the laws relating to abortion, contraception, and homosexuality were changed and more recently that the laws related to marriage were changed to accommodate same sex couples. All remain contentious due largely to Christian theological imperatives. In Ontario, we still have a publically supported Catholic schools system in place.
    When compared to the US, religious rhetoric appears less in public life and we have clearly taken some important steps towards the separation of religion and the state. At the same time there is still some distance to go. We should be discussing the benefits that religious institutions derive from the laws related to non taxable entities and to charitable donations. Isn’t this a clear case of the involvement of the state in religion?


    1. Thanks Allan. I would be interested to hear what others have to say, especially about provincial governments funding the Catholic school system while in most provinces other religious groups do not receive similar support.


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