A few nights ago, President Barak Obama delivered his eighth and final State of the Union Address. The State of the Union Address is a tradition as old as our nation, a result of the Constitution’s requirement that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Presidents often use this opportunity to push their agendas on particular legislation, to rally their supporters and scold their opponents for putting roadblocks in the way of progress.
In his latest State of the Union Address, President Obama did discuss some of his goals for the remainder of his term, and he did scold his opponents, but he also raised some big questions that will continue to be relevant long after a new president takes office in 2017. The fourth of the President’s “big questions” was “how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?” I appreciate what he had to say on this question, because it has been a concern of mine for some time – and never more so than in the past year as I have listened to the political campaigns of those who would see themselves as the next President of the United States.
I think few people would argue that our present system of choosing national and state leaders brings out the best in us. More often than not, the public is encouraged to vote on the basis of fear, anger, party loyalty, and, of course, personal gain. Gone are the days when a politician would dare to say, “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country” (John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961). Instead, we have a roster of political Santa Clauses each promising in tweets and sound bites to single-handedly make everything better for you, their loyal voter, and describing in detail how their opponents (in the same or the opposite party) will make it worse.
If you missed the President’s speech, here is a little of what he had to say on this matter:
“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.
“But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.”
If all each of us cares about is how the government and the politicians will make our individual lives better, we will continue to have a political process that brings out the worst in us. The President gave some good reasons for why we should embrace civility and open dialogue instead of hatred and fearmongering. To Christians, Jesus gives another:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? ... And if you greet [or listen to and agree with] only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
That doesn't mean we have to agree with everything other's believe or go along with everything other's say, but we do have to listen and consider if we are doing everything we can to show God's love to others - even if they are in different political parties or hold different political views from our own.
What is my mission as an author? It's a tough question, but I believe the goal dearest to my heart is to help Christians think about what they really believe and then to act as if they really believe it. It all begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian. Then we have to learn to live like a Christian.