The lasting value of the annual SOTU is not primarily legislative. Since 1965, only 39.4 percent of SOTU initiatives have been passed at least in part by Congress. The larger significance of last night’s speech is more visceral. The president sought to articulate a message of hope and optimism, seeking to unify Americans around a vision for the future.
However, The Washington Post noted that “the gulf between his vision of a unified America, one he has trumpeted from his earliest days on the national scene, and the political reality has never seemed wider.” The Post lists guns, immigration reform, Middle Eastern refugees, the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, and war and terrorism as issues over which we are more divided than ever.
For example, Jim Obergefell was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. He was the plaintiff whose name appears on the landmark Supreme Court case that declared same-sex marriage legal. Also attending the speech was Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, famous for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Do you think Americans are more united or more divided today?
My point is not to criticize either President Obama or his critics. I’m not writing to blame the Democrats or the Republicans. I think something more significant than partisan politics is at work in our culture today.
Unity in diversity is always a challenge. Presidents Adams and Jefferson faced enormous vitriol from their critics. The Civil War killed more Americans than did any other conflict. But two world wars, the Great Depression, and the looming specter of communism unified Americans against our common enemies. In the decades since, our military victories and economic prosperity have inured us to the need for national solidarity.
Our unity has been severely tested in recent decades, from the Vietnam War and sexual revolution of the 1960s to same-sex marriage and the refugee crisis today. Prosperity usually breeds complacency. Absent an external threat, we turn to advancing our personal agendas and ideals. Disagreements divide us, then our divisions foster more disagreement. The result is red states and blue states, fragmentation exacerbated by political rancor and moral dissolution.
In 2 Chronicles 26 we meet King Uzziah, one of Judah’s greatest rulers. Tragically, “when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God” (v. 16). As their leader fell, his nation’s unity and character fell with him.
King David noted, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). General Douglas MacArthur: “History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline.”
Unity is not found in uniformity. Nor is it sustainable as an end unto itself. Unity is strongest when it is the consequence of a larger cause. If you and I stand on opposite sides of a room with a chair in the middle, every step we take toward the chair is a step toward each other.
What should be the unifying center of our culture? Or better, Who?
We pledge allegiance to “one Nation under God, indivisible.” The latter requires the former. Unless our words become reality, what is the future of our union?