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Blog Deep Thoughts

No Bullies in the Pulpit: What TR Really Meant

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
President Theodore Roosevelt to Lyman Abbott and others, circa 19091

This might be one of the most well-quoted things a president has ever said—if Roosevelt actually said it, since we only have Abbott’s account of it. In one compound sentence, Roosevelt very effectively summarized the primary power of the presidency: persuasion. Since the 1960s, fifty years after Roosevelt made this assessment, the presidency has been regularly referred to as a “bully pulpit.” Unfortunately, in the half century between the quote and its adoption into the political discourse, much of the original meaning has been lost.

About five years ago, I had to make a certificate for students who were doing exceptional work in our history classes. I chose to use a picture of Teddy Roosevelt with a cartoon speech bubble. Inside the bubble, I placed “Bully!” a catchphrase of the twenty-sixth president, which in his day meant “good job” or “well done.”2

But words change meanings over time, and now, “bully” only refers to someone trying to dominate, oppress, or harm another. Not the vibe we were going for.


We had to change the certificate. Not that big of a deal, in the end.

But…when it comes to discussing the presidency, experts should probably have a better understanding of what words mean.

And maybe they do. I should be careful not to assume, but it sure seems like many commentators, analysts, pundits, and even politicians think of the presidency as a pulpit from which one could bully his opponents, rather than as a terrific pulpit from which to inspire and persuade.

If we needed more evidence than the dictionary, we could examine the story Abbott told about Roosevelt’s coining of the phrase. The president was working on a speech and had a handful of people to sit and listen to a draft. Given that this anecdote appears in the February 27, 1909 edition of Abbott’s magazine The Outlook, it’s probably—I’d say likely—that Roosevelt was working on his final annual message to Congress. Today, we call this the “State of the Union” address, and the president delivers to Congress in person in January of each year, not counting inauguration years. However, a century ago, it was just the annual address, written by the president and delivered to Congress to be read by a congressional clerk. Thus, this whole scene described by Abbott probably took place in the White House before December 9, 1908, when Roosevelt sent his address to the legislature.

So, there’s the background. Now, to the immediate context of the anecdote.

Roosevelt had seemingly selected some individuals to listen to his address in order to get their thoughts on it, and as he read the address, he was offering his own commentary. Thus, after reading a paragraph that Abbott thought “of a distinctly ethical character,” Roosevelt himself interjected, predicting the criticism he might receive in response to it.


“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

The accusation of preaching, or moralizing, clearly prompts the analogy of the presidency to a pulpit. We don’t really need to dig into that too deeply. It’s a fairly obvious connection, so our focus remains on “bully.” By using the phrase “such a” before “bully,” Roosevelt was remarking on the degree to which the “pulpit” was terrific, exceptional, amazing, etc., not oppressive or intimidating.

Let’s make this even easier: which sounds more likely?

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a great pulpit!”

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a thuggish pulpit!”

Having made a pretty strong case for what Roosevelt meant, I’d like the chance to explain the consequences of getting it wrong.

When we speak of the president in terms of bullying, of grabbing the opposition party by the lapels and demanding they hand over their lunch money/continuing resolutions, we’re tacitly acknowledging the increasingly fractious world of partisan American politics, and we’re adding to the violent rhetoric that has, over the past few years, resulted in actual violence.

When we talk about the presidency as a pulpit from which one can bully others, we are essentially redefining the job as one of intimidation, in which the president must harangue party members not in lock-step, shout down the opposition, all while holding the world hostage to our economic needs.

I don’t think anyone set out to recast the office in this way. No one sat down at a boardroom table and said, “We know why we’re all here: to conceptual transform the “leader of the free world” into an international thug.” No, I think that words have meaning, and, when we alter that meaning, we can unintentionally alter our history and politics.

In closing, having highlighted the historical meaning of “bully,” let me ask that we search for a leader who can use the pulpit of the presidency to persuade, to inspire, to convey the optimism of a “better tomorrow” that has helped to define the American people for centuries.

We don’t need a bully.

Sources & Resources
Here’s another, similar take on the “bully pulpit.”
LOC: Image of Pres. Roosevelet


  1. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081671491&seq=462 

  2. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/bully 

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Blog Deep Thoughts Showing My Work

Freedom (06-13-23)

Freedom Through Creativity

Teaching children how to do something creative w/o telling them what to create is difficult. Kids are used to concrete tasks, used to following the dotted line.

Of course, for some things, this is how it has to be, but when it comes to acts of creative expression, freedom must win the day.

Freedom is a wild thing, and so glue will be spilt and markers left uncapped. But the work?

Masterpieces made by tiny hands.

This is part of my Public Domain Derivation Series.

Hand holding a brush
Arthur Wesley Dow’s Floating World: Composition (1905 edition), page 8
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Blog Deep Thoughts Showing My Work

Communication (06-15-23)

Communication

Communication has come a long way in the past few decades. It’s truly amazing how easy it is to communicate with others, even when miles apart.

Despite all of this communication—true sharing of the self with another and receiving [the same in return]—is more difficult. We have more ways to share and less to say. And if we we’re not careful, we get so wrapped up in ourselves that we communicate a lack of care.

Nothing could be worse than to tell someone you don’t care without even realizing it.

This is part of my Public Domain Derivation Series.

Giles Gilbert Scott's design for a telephone booth.
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Blog Church Ideas Deep Thoughts

The False Enemy of Culture

“We have to be wary of the influence of culture.”

That’s what I heard an older gentleman say the other day in a conversation about how the Church should conduct its business. Culture, as he saw it, was a mental contagion that was poised to infect the Church and kill her from the inside.

Let me be clear that I’m not writing this to criticize this person. In fact, I’ve waited nearly four weeks to start writing about this experience and won’t be posting this for several more weeks. No, this isn’t about that particular person. It’s about the narrow view of culture that he expressed so clearly that I’ve heard others express as well, though less explicitly. And so, let’s discuss his perspective without judgement of his character.

Implicit in his assessment of culture as a threat to the Church was his belief that culture was an entirely worldly creation and was not already an aspect of his own Christian experience.

Culture is a false enemy. People often use “culture” as a stand-in for the ideology of their political or religious rivals. Combined with a flawed view of what is secular and what is sacred, we arrive at a perspective of culture as an evil force desperately trying to influence, infiltrate, or in anyway incapacitate the Church.

There is no such thing as a “secular” or “sacred.” All things belong to God, and so nothing, in that sense, is secular. However, some things are sacred in that we use them for God or to worship God and other things are “common,” which is to say that we use them as part of our everyday lives.

“Profane,” however, is what we call the treating of sacred things as common. When we take the name of the LORD and use it as an expletive, a word uttered to express anger or pain, we profane the Name. However, that doesn’t mean the we cannot use words to express our suffering, but rather, we should reserve some words, like the Name, for when we call out for an end to suffering.

The problem in that scenario wasn’t the language, but it’s use. The enemy isn’t culture; it’s the way it’s used, expressed, warped toward the common away from the sacred. Human beings are sacred creatures, and the culture we create out to reflect that. To the extent it doesn’t, we and our culture are profane. But that doesn’t mean culture is the enemy, and it doesn’t mean that culture is a foe or force banging on the door of your church, trying to force its way in.

Culture is already inside the church because it is part of every single one of us.

The fact that this individual in this meeting was debating an issue in English is an example of his culture.

The fact that we were meeting to discuss and debate is an example of culture.

Culture is an indispensable part of who we are, and like everything else, reflects our fallen nature while simultaneously being slowly redeemed.

In Revelation 21:10, the Apostle John had a vision of a heavenly city, a “New Jerusalem,” descending to the earth. This would be the capital of God’s eternal kingdom, Heaven on Earth.

But why wasn’t it a garden? In Genesis, when all of this began, God planted a garden and placed humanity in it as the crown jewel of all that He had made. The first cities were made by men, men descended from Cain. In fact, for most of the Old Testament, cities were places that represented the heights (or rather depths?) of humanity depravity.

And yet, at the close of this world and the opening of the next, God was founding a city, not planting a garden. Why?

Because Jesus died to redeem humanity along with the rest of creation, including what we have created. God has redeemed us, and one day, He will redeem our culture.

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Blog Showing My Work

Locked In

Man locked in a roomBeing awake and unable to speak, unable to communicate has to be one of the worst ways to live.

Once, in high school, I had to have surgery. When I woke up, I was nauseous, weak, and unable to speak. While in that state of post-anesthetic paralysis, all I could do was steam for help in my own head as a doctor behind a curtain ordered a pizza with what sounded to me like the most disgusting assortment of toppings imaginable.

Within a few minutes of standing up, I vomited.

I don’t think of that moment often, but today I did as I had a similar experience.

I was trying to get somewhere this morning when three of four different “domestic” issues—nothing serious at all—and I don’t know why but immediately my stress level skyrocketed.

For no good or even discernible reason.

But there I was, seething because my dear, sweet family dared to interact with me.

Not my proudest moment, but not really my focus here either.

No, my focus is my inability to articulate my emotions or to even speak when I get upset.

After all the benign issues were handled, I left to take my daughter to where she needed to go and, the whole way there, I couldn’t speak, couldn’t talk about what happened, couldn’t talk about the day, couldn’t ask her questions about her day which was going to be filled with lots of fun and exciting events.

I was locked in by my anger.

It’s happened so many times, and it’s paralyzing. I can’t tell people I’m trapped, and yet if they poke me hard enough, the bubble will burst and all of my anger and rage will pour on so poor, unsuspecting person.

Usually a loved one.

So, I’m writing this for those moments, when I’m locked in, when I can’t explain, can’t speak, but that I love them and will hopefully be back soon.

(Featured Image Modified from Original)

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Blog Deep Thoughts Showing My Work

Heaven (06-12-23)

“Heaven is a well-kept lawn.”

Has someone said that? I can’t remember. It’s true, in a way. God gave Adam and already flourishing garden and told him to steward and cultivate it.

To steward is to preserve. To cultivate is to change.

God has created us to be creators. We use His creation to make our own. We preserve order and goodness, while changing it to suite our creative vision. This is worship.

Aerial painting of an elaborate lawn

This is part of my Public Domain Derivation Series.

HT Public Domain Review