Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell asleep during President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of President Trump’s 2020 speech after he finished his address. And networks cut away from President Clinton’s 1997 address to air the OJ Simpson verdict.
I saw no such noteworthy events last night during (or after) President Biden’s speech, in which he highlighted progress during his years in office and sought to sell Americans on his economic plans for the future.
However, if the past is prologue, the president should not expect to see significant results from his speech. According to Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones, “Historical data suggests these speeches rarely affect a president’s public standing in a meaningful way, despite the amount of attention they receive.”
And yet the Washington Post reports that the president had “the largest audience any US politician will have all year, absent some catastrophe that would require him to give a very different kind of prime-time address.”
Why do so many of us watch? The answer is actually relevant far beyond last night’s speech.
“You gave your word to his boss”
In Clear and Present Danger, a 1994 movie adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, Harrison Ford plays CIA analyst Jack Ryan. In one scene, he relates troubling news he has discovered regarding governmental corruption to National Security Advisor Jim Greer, played by James Earl Jones. Ryan says, “I’m afraid if I dig any deeper no one’s going to like what I find.”
Greer responds, “You took an oath, if you recall, when you first came to work for me. And I don’t mean to the National Security Advisor of the United States. I mean to his boss, and I don’t mean the president. You gave your word to his boss: you gave your word to the people of the United States.”
Jim Greer was right. Unlike 70 percent of the world living under dictatorships, in the United States, our president and other elected leaders work for the people who elected them. That’s why the president tried last night to impress us with his work and why we watched his speech to decide whether or not we agree.
The annual State of the Union address illustrates the “golden rule” in our fallen world: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” In the case of democracy (“the power of the people”), the people have the “gold” of cultural authority and thus make the cultural “rules.” And as Jesus said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48 NRSV).
Self-governance requires the ability to govern the self. Therein lies our system of government’s greatest opportunity and its greatest challenge.
“Truth has stumbled in the public squares”
In a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans said humankind is inherently good. As a result, our postmodern culture believes we should tolerate another person’s moral choices so long as they do not harm others. However, as Scripture notes, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). This is why Jesus said we must be “born again” (John 3:3).
In Isaiah 59 the prophet states, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (v. 2). He then identifies specific consequences of this “separation.” Do any of these describe our culture?
- “Your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity” (v. 3a). Does this bring abortion to mind?
- “Your lips have spoken lies” (v. 3b). Does this relate to our “post-truth” culture and our redefinitions of marriage and gender identity?
- “No one enters suit justly; no one goes to law honestly” (v. 4). Does this describe our escalating governmental and corporate corruption?
- “Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood” (v. 7). Does this relate to racial injustice today?
Consequently, “We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight” (v. 10). This is because “truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter” (v. 14).
The prophet then states our only hope: “A Redeemer will come to Zion” (v. 20).
“Leave the rest to God”
Numerous retrospectives on President Ronald Reagan were published Monday on the 112th anniversary of his birthday. One article, written by a columnist who worked for the former president, identified “the secret of who he was” in his life motto: “Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, leave the rest to God.”
Of course, to do the first four well, we need the help of the One to whom we “leave the rest.” As we noted yesterday, we must know Christ before we can truly make him known. This is why a daily encounter with the living Lord Jesus is so vital for our souls and for our society.
John Eldredge writes: “Henri Nouwen once asked Mother Teresa for spiritual direction. Spend one hour each day in adoration of your Lord, she said, and never do anything you know is wrong.” To do the second, we need the power of the first.
If “one hour each day” seems unrealistic, how much time will you spend in “adoration of your Lord” today?