What Presidential Speechwriting Taught Me About Congregational Preaching

As you can see in the Books I Like  section, I am currently reading White House Ghostsa detailed history of presidential speechwriters from 1932 to 2008 . . . or, to use initials, from FDR to W.

When I first saw the title at a used book store, I realized, “I give ‘speeches’; I like to write . . . this must be the book for me!”

And the most interesting part of the book is the lesson that three of most famous moments of presidential oratory in the 20th century almost didn’t get said.

Virtually every presidential speech gets “staffed” — meaning, circulated among and vetted by different governmental departments, all to ensure the president doesn’t say something in a speech that gets the rest of the country in trouble.

As you might imagine, when upwards of ten agenda-driven people get their input into a speech, boldness and truth-telling suffer at the expense of caution and nuance.

And so John Kennedy’s handlers did not want him saying “ich bein Berliner” out of fear that he would either stumble over the German, offend the Soviets, or both.  Thankfully, boldness prevailed:

A generation later, friend and foe alike were aghast when Ronald Reagan used the term “evil empire” to describe the USSR.  In an era of nuclear fear and in the midst of a drive for moral equivalence between the Iron Curtain and the West, Reagan’s words were incendiary.  And yet in hindsight, does anyone doubt that the Soviet system and what it did to its own people was in fact just as Reagan described it?

And in the greatest “near miss” of them all, Reagan’s speechwriters had to work hard to keep the line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”  in his 1987 address at the Brandenburg Gate.  The State Department objected.  The National Security Council wanted it out.  The Joint Chiefs Of Staff opposed it.  Reagan and his writers persevered and, in a sense, spoke the future into reality.

What does all this have to do with preaching to a congregation?

Obscuring the truth and nuancing the argument lead to forgettable sermons.

For maximum impact and optimal memory, we who preach on the demolition of the ultimate dividing wall should do so with boldness and clarity.