There was a little bit of church at the end of the otherwise policy-laden State of the Union address. President Obama led a call and response that called for votes on gun control measures.
President Obama recalled the tragic death of Hadiya Pendleton, the friendly and talented young majorette who performed at the President’s Inauguration and then was shot in gang gunfire in Chicago, a mile from the president’s Chicago house.
Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, sat in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box at the State of the Union, along with more than two dozen other American citizens whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence.
Senators of both parties are working on commonsense gun proposals, the President noted. While some may vote “no,” he acknowledged, these proposals “deserve a vote.”
“They deserve a vote,” the president repeated, his voice rising.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote, he insisted.
The standing crowd in the chamber applauded.
“The families of Newtown deserve a vote.”
Standing applause, cheers.
“The families of Aurora deserve a vote.”
Louder cheers, applause.
“The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”
Many members of Congress had invited those affected by gun violence as their guests. These were identified by the green ribbons they wore. It was a packed house, and they responded.
This was an unusually emotional moment in the State of the Union.
The “amen” chorus at the end of the address was no accident. It elevated the full-throated defense of government the president had given in the earlier part of the address to a “call.” The president advocated for government, especially when it’s “smarter,” and he called for a “broad, shared prosperity.”
“Smart government,” for example, is government that does a “Fix-it-Program” for our infrastructure and emphasizes “smart curricula” for 21st century schools that train for the jobs we have now.
There was a “New New Deal” feeling to many of the President’s proposals in this “smart government” agenda, including “incentives to companies that hire Americans who’ve got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been out of work so long that no one will give them a chance.” From rebuilding vacant homes to rebuilding devastated communities, this is a New New Deal.
The big New New Deal idea, however, was raising the minimum wage. “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”
This proposal to simply raise the minimum wage is clear, it is long overdue, and it is necessary. No one working full-time should be living in poverty in the United States. This is a moral imperative, not just a government policy.
The Sen. Marco Rubio response for the Republicans, oddly veered between “small government” rhetoric and praise for the big government programs like Social Security and Medicare. It contrasted with the President’s call for “smart government” because the President’s case for smart government was not confined to individual policy positions. I did not find a similar overarching philosophy in the Rubio response.
The basis of a New New Deal, i.e. “smart government,” I thought was captured when the President argued our nation is based on the “enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.”
Christians who support progressive politics, like myself and many others, are often inclined to a rational interpretation of these rights and obligations. This is both a strategic and a substantive error. These rights and obligations are a call to community, and should have a spiritual dimension as well.
I think in the “call and response” conclusion to the State of the Union, we felt the spirit of our connection to one another.
That deserves an “amen.”