Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The State of the Union: Hope with Guts in It

William Edgar


By William Edgar

January 24, 2014 

On January 28, 2014, President Barack Obama will deliver the State of the Union address, his sixth since entering office in 2009. According to tradition, the Speaker of the House officially invites the president to deliver the message before a joint session of Congress. Although the dispatch is somewhat pro-forma, this year, Speaker John Boehner stated, “In the coming year, Americans expect Washington to focus on their priorities and to look for common ground in addressing the challenges facing our country. In that spirit, we welcome an opportunity to hear your ideas, particularly for putting Americans back to work.”

Certainly the president will have to address the jobless and the underemployed. In last year’s State of the Union address, he announced that, “After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created six million new jobs.” One of the many applause lines was, “So, together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the State of our Union is stronger.” 

Confidence? One of our real predicaments at present is precisely that of confidence and trust. Many Americans have no confidence that any such rubble has been cleared away. David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times that two large questions needed to be settled in America, that of competence and coercion. Is the government competent to manage programs such as the Affordable Care Act? And can government enforce compliance with some of its larger programs? When Social Security was first passed and the Medicare provision made into law, the government had enough citizen trust to allow it to redistribute the wealth of our country to benefit the elderly. However, this is no longer the case. Americans have always been individualists, but today that is true with a vengeance. We do not want morality to be dictated by anyone from the outside. We do not like mandates.

So, how should the president address the dogging problem of jobs and a lackluster economy? No one speech can magically undo our current condition of distrust. Even Barack Obama, a most eloquent and persuasive public speaker, will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in one evening. Beyond unemployment, enormously important issues are before us: bringing more troops home, ensuring the stability of formerly occupied countries, immigration and border control, education deficits, information leaks, trans-Pacific markets, gun control, domestic oil production, congressional gridlock, persistent joblessness…

In his speech on January 28th, the president would do well to lift the rhetoric out of these important, but relatively temporal preoccupations, to something more grand that helps us understand how these specific issues function in relation to higher ideals. 

Among these ideals is the proper role of government. The Center for Public Justice has long maintained that size of government is not the issue, but rather calling. How can Americans regain their confidence that government is divinely mandated, “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4)? History has lessons for us here. We should remember our government’s active role in declaring war against Germany and Italy in 1941, or it stepping in to promote civil rights for voters in 1964. Few people would object to the provisions for health care in such policies as Medicare and Medicaid. Local governments should be empowered to do much of the work that federal government is not called to do. These are proper reminders that there is a biblically-based, God-given role for civil authority, and it is not simply the product of popular sovereignty. The difference is crucial, but hard to argue, particularly in a culture of self-reliance and meritocracy. Government should be competent and even able to coerce, but always for the promotion of the common good. 

Another ideal to consider is that of America’s leadership in the world. The Pax Americana is severely under threat and we should remember that one of America’s greatest gifts to itself and to others is the gift of freedom, of the kind envisaged by America’s founding fathers. However diverse they may have been, their consensus was that freedom is bought at a price, the price of covenanting together to promote human flourishing. Freedom and truth must partner together in the fight for real emancipation from various kinds of oppression.

The president should also appeal to one of America’s greatest traditions: the right to live peacefully with people with whom we differ, sometimes deeply, over social, political, and religious issues. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from an established religion should lead to handling conflicts not by violence but by debate and compromise. This holds true for political parties, for religious differences, and it should extend to the most sensitive, volatile issues dividing many Americans like gender and sexual orientation. Only an appeal to higher principles can move us to a calm and collected stance.

It may be thorny to ask a nation that is fearful for lack of steady work, fearful for its safety, fearful of broken promises, to find hope in higher ideals. The antidote for our pervasive cynicism is not sentimental whitewashing, but rather having something to hope for, something that has guts in it. The only banquet table worth attending is with those who have gone through the valley of the shadow of death, with the rod and staff of the Lord to comfort them. Fifty years ago, another great African-American leader told us he had a dream. It’s not too late to dream again.

- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”