A Preacher’s Take on the President’s SOTU Speech
One of the challenges preachers face is “the unexpected, big event.” It’s the thing that just happened, that has everyone talking, everyone’s attention.
It’s Columbine, the Lockerbie bombing just days before Christmas, 9/11, Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. And then there are other “big events” that aren’t quite that big, that shocking, devastating or disturbing. Which is to say that one of the hardest things a preacher faces is knowing when and how to directly address such events.
If you never speak of or to such moments and issues, it sounds as if you’re living in some sort of spiritual alternate reality, a kind of religious gated-community. But if each sermon leads with what’s hot in the news that week, people begin to wonder — rightly so — if they might not have been better off to stay home and watch the Sunday news programs, and if their preacher has anything to say that they might not get more easily or better elsewhere?
I thought of this dilemma as I anticipated the President’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night. There clearly was a big event: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the defiant resistance of the Ukrainian people. And the President did devote the first twelve minutes of his 62 minute speech to that event and to lauding the courage of the Ukrainians.
But the other fifty minutes of the SOTU sounded so much like business-as-usual that you wondered if it was a two speech mash-up. And it wasn’t only that the rest of the speech, which returned to the President’s domestic agenda, became a laundry list of 3 point programs for this and 4 priorities for that. It was that it seemed oblivious to the reality that the President’s approval rating stands at 36%, lower than that of Donald Trump’s at a similar point in his presidency. Listening on Tuesday you might think that Biden’s approval rating was 56% or 66%, and as such all that was required was saying, “Good job, keep it up.” As much as I wish and want Biden to succeed — and believe me I do — that is not the situation.
In a sermon you need to have one clear message. You can develop it though several steps or moves, but you are focusing and clarifying the main point, not heading off in other directions entirely. You do need some tension in the thing: e. g., “we’ve often thought this, but here Jesus seems to be challenging that . . . what gives?” But again you build tension to advance the main message or point.
It seemed to me the President had a huge opportunity. It is one that he himself had signaled the importance of — the battle between democracy — government of the people, by the people, for the people — versus the world of autocrats and dictators where might makes right and no one can trust anyone else.
This could have been a moment for a Kennedy-esque, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or a “Reaganesque, “Mr. Gorbachev, take down that wall.” But it wasn’t. This could have been a moment to say that democracy is imperiled abroad and at home, and to connect the dots. Alas.
President Biden had an opportunity to make one overriding point grounded in a crucial historic moment of decision. It could have been a call to arms (even if metaphorical) but wasn’t. Remember Bill Clinton’s SOTU’s? It seemed as he were saying, “I can out-talk anyone.” Laundry lists that went on and on, until you were ready to cry “uncle” or shoot yourself.
Biden needed to channel his inner Obama. He channeled his inner Clinton instead.