Magazine article The Christian Century

Sowing and Reaping: Clinton's Language of Renewal

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sowing and Reaping: Clinton's Language of Renewal

Article excerpt

REVIEWS OF PRESIDENT Clinton's inaugural address were mixed. Some critics complained about the absence of a memorable phrase (a criticism that ignores the fact that phrases become memorable only after time has passed and they become fixed in the nation's collective memory). Of the many commentators on the speech, columnist William Safire was one of the few to notice the way Clinton's quotation of Galatians 6:9--"And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not"--pertained to his overall theme.

It is customary for presidential addresses to employ religious references as pietistic icing. Remarks on justice, for example, are often enhanced by a reference to Amos: "Let justice roll down like waters." And Ronald Reagan, whose skill as a communicator Clinton would like to emulate, got considerable mileage out of John Winthrop's challenge to the colonists to see themselves as a "city upon a hill," a phrase Reagan used to celebrate American glory, ignoring Winthrop's call to duty and responsibility.

But Clinton's reference to sowing and reaping in Galatians 6:9 tied in directly with his general use of seasonal metaphors, which were part of the theme of renewal: "Today, we celebrate the mystery of American renewal."

This metaphor was suggested to Clinton by Father Tim Healy, former president of Georgetown University, who shortly before his death in December sent the president-elect several speech suggestions. Healy's metaphor of the "forced spring" is a gardening reference--to when a flower is forced to bloom before its time. Safire, an authority on language, describes this as an "offbeat and thought-provoking figure of speech."

This metaphor, according to Safire, who spoke to an aide involved in drafting the speech, "was reinforced" by the biblical reference. It was more than that. The sixth chapter of Galatians, which Clinton both quoted directly and referred to implicitly, stresses good works and personal discipline, and reminds us that life in the spirit and a corrupt existence are their own rewards.

It would appear that Clinton is sufficiently at home with scripture to pull up Galatians from his memory bank. His use of a seasonal metaphor stressed the need for newness and change in a world "warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues." (Columnist Jeff Greenfield, less gracious than Safire in his comments, thought there was more of Chauncey the Gardener than Paul the Apostle in Clinton's rhetoric.)

According to Safire, when Clinton decided to end his address with a Pauline reference, he asked an aide, "Are people going to pull out the rest of this?" To which Safire, an adviser in the Nixon White House before he became a columnist, responded: "You bet we are; I like verse five: |For every man shall bear his own burden.'"

Paul makes three points in chapter six, only one of which was specifically cited by Clinton. The two points not quoted by Clinton are implied, though cautiously presented, as befits a political address to a pluralistic audience. Clinton contrasted the punishment for sin and the reward of salvation in secular terminology. In developing the theme of the mystery of renewal and the need for change, Clinton implied the force of Paul's earlier admonition that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.