The Constitution requires 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.” This annual speech is an opportunity for the President to lay out their vision for the country – not just a chance to reflect on past accomplishments, but give a sense of future priorities.
Looking beyond its passive delivery, we saw a dangerous and forbidding view of America in this year’s State of the Union. Laced with militaristic language that favored strength over compassion, the President failed to address one of the most critical roles of government -- the call to uphold the common good and care for the needs of the most vulnerable among us. As we look at the President's address, let's reflect on what our faith and what our General Synod has to say about the important issues covered in the State of the Union, and remember the words in 1 John 4:18; “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…”
What is the world the United Church of Christ wants to uplift? In what ways will we work to express our love of neighbor, love of children and love of creation? Let's hold these questions before us as we look at what was said.
Taxes and the Economy
Tax Reform was the single most significant legislative accomplishment of the President’s first term, and he lauded its passage as a boon to the economy and something that will make a real difference for every American. While some middle-class Americans might see an incremental difference in their taxes, the primary function of the tax bill was to give substantial tax cuts to the wealthiest households and corporations. It also grows the deficit. That manufactured scarcity – the idea that we don’t have enough money to fund the expenses of funding the government - could, and likely will, drive some politicians to threaten cuts to essential services that provide health care, housing and food assistance, and other critical safety net programs.
Our General Synod has advocated for reforming the tax system, but in a way that establishes a “progressive, fair, neutral, adequate and redistributive” system. We believe that taxes play an important role in building a society that is fair and equitable, with programs to help the poor and disadvantaged. We believe that government has a vital role in promoting the common good.
The President enumerated that the state of our economy is strong, highlighting low unemployment and a rocketing stock market. He claimed the cause of much of that growth is through regulatory rollbacks. But we as people of faith aren’t just interested in an economy that works for a chosen few and the changes made by the Administration have by and large favored the wealthy while repealing regulations that are important for workers. Our vision for economic justice has less to do with corporate profits and far more to do with ensuring the dignity and value of every person. This includes wages that help raise people out of poverty, access to quality and affordable health insurance, and safe and respectful workplaces. We believe that God’s vision for the world is that of lifting each other up – and for us to share the gifts of abundance on this earth.
One of the major healthcare announcements from the speech was a promise to lower prescription drug prices (no action plan accompanied this promise). The Administration and Congress continue to engage in efforts to dismantle health systems in place to help the most vulnerable and make access to care more onerous. Lower prescription drug prices would be beneficial, but far more needs to happen. We as a church advocate for healthcare as a right and priority for all people and anything short of that is unjust.
Immigration was a major theme of the speech – and it has been a significant theme of the Administration. The rhetoric has not changed – and the dehumanizing of immigrants and refugees, which has been a hallmark of the Trump administration, continued in the speech he made on Tuesday night. These policies are in sharp contrast to the UCC’s stance as an immigrant welcoming church and we will continue to push for humane immigration policies – which include family reunification, ending the raids and heartless border patrol practices, and recognizing the inherent value and dignity of each human life.
The President spent a brief amount of time talking about prison reform – without elaborating on what that meant. As a church, there is no more potent reminder of why we are called to be a part of criminal justice reform than the words in Matthew with Jesus saying, “When I was in prison you visited me.”
We are not called to opine from afar or withhold grace from the prison system and population. Instead, we must enter into holy conversations about our failing and broken system, be a part of healing and representatives of grace. Our General Synod has recognized that mass incarceration is a critical human and civil rights issue and has called us to action that dismantles the institutionalized racism and economic injustice that is at the core of the prison system.
Highlighting our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the President announced a plan to build a modern and reliable transportation system. He elaborated that this plan would mainly be reliant on leveraging state and local governments as well as public-private partnerships. While there is no argument that there are massive changes needed to improve roads, bridges and public utilities – this particular approach is dangerous. Privatization of our nation’s infrastructure means higher utility prices and heavy tolls, making it even harder for those with the least to get access to essential services. We as a church are called to restoration – and with the many failures of the public utilities in our country that we’ve seen – we need to push for a robust infrastructure that doesn’t rely on increasing cost for users through privatization.
A brief distressing line in the speech said: “we can lift our citizens from welfare to work.” This coded language means work requirements for health and food assistance. It is unconscionable to withhold access to these key services from people who need them the most and ignores the fact that the vast majority of people who receive Medicaid or SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) are working. We will continue to advocate for the right of every person to have access to critical services like food and medical assistance.
Several of the international policies that the President introduced are deeply problematic. Just before the speech, President Trump signed a new Executive order to keep Guantanamo Bay open; in contravention with an order President Obama signed before leaving office. The United Church of Christ has called on the government to close the facility along with other faith partners. It remains a symbol of our nation’s past use of torture and is not just immoral, but impractical and expensive. As a church committed to human rights, we will continue to oppose the use of Guantanamo Bay.
Calling the moment when countries come together to lay down their nuclear arms “magical” the President called for updating and enhancing our nuclear armament. Rather than embracing diplomacy and the cause of peace, the Administration is instead taking the opposite tack. Our churches have long opposed nuclear weapons and their testing, and we will continue to work toward a world where nuclear weapons are a piece of history.
North Korea is a brutal dictatorship, whose citizens are led by fear and terror. The President spent a significant amount of time describing the cruel conditions in North Korea but offered nothing to ease the tensions between our two nations. At every chance, the President takes the tone of intense military aggression, not peaceful diplomacy. As a Just Peace Church we question the logic of militarism and seek to find solutions to conflict through engagement, diplomacy, and reconciliation – not war
A Vision for the Future
The state of our union, as told by the President, is one of fear and trepidation. Calling it our “new American moment,” he identified conflict and sought to scare the American people by telling us about the monsters hiding behind every corner.
But we as a church can see a different way. Our sacred scriptures call us to be salt and light in a world severely lacking in seasoning and drenched in darkness. We are made whole by the grace of God, which means we don’t have to fear. We can counter each bitter, biting moment, with light and grace. Together, may we continue the good work of bringing about a just world for all.