David Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. Kevin Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. They are authors of the The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. To learn more about the book check out their handy website here. In the article below Domke and Coe commemorate the bombing of Pearl Harbor (12-7-1941) by comparing it to our modern tragedy, 9/11.
Sixty-six years ago today America was attacked at Pearl Harbor. In responding, President Franklin Roosevelt did the expected: he addressed the nation to explain what had happened, to describe plans for retaliation and, of course, to comfort the American people.
But Roosevelt did one thing that, by today’s standards, was entirely unexpected: he didn’t say much about God. In fact, Roosevelt addressed the nation only once in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor—a fireside chat on the evening of December 9—and mentioned God only one time. That reference was the concluding word of the speech:
We are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows. And in the difficult hours of this day—through dark days that be yet to come—we will know that the vast majority of the members of the human race are on our side. Many of them are fighting with us. All of them are praying for us. For in representing our cause, we represent theirs as well—our hope and their hope for liberty under God.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the worst by a foreign entity in America’s history, and in comforting and rallying the nation Roosevelt overtly invoked God one time. FDR did not formally address the nation again until his annual State of the Union in early January 1942.
Today we face an entirely different era of religious politics. Politicians look for any opportunity to talk about God and faith, and crises present just such an opportunity.
Consider that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001, George W. Bush formally addressed the nation via live television three times in the space of nine days: from the Oval Office on the evening of September 11, at the National Cathedral as part of a memorial service on September 14, and before a joint session of Congress on September 20. In these three addresses Bush invoked God more than 20 times.
Bush concluded the September 20 address—which was watched by 82 million Americans, the largest audience for a political event in U.S. history—with these words: “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” He then added, “Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice, assured of the rightness of our cause and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America.”
The striking contrast between Bush’s and Roosevelt’s approaches provides two useful reminders.
The first is that the extent to which religion infuses American politics today is historically uncommon. Those who say there is nothing new under the sun with respect to religion and politics are flat wrong.
The second reminder is that presidents can do the job of comforting the nation in times of crisis without saturating their language with religious references. No one would argue that FDR failed in this important task where Bush succeeded. Roosevelt simply took a different approach. And, given the serious dangers that arise when politics and religion become too intertwined, Roosevelt’s approach might be just what we need today.