The Common Good

State of the Union: Our Responsibility for the Government We Deserve

My measure of a good State of the Union address is whether or not I am able to stay awake through to the end. I am still awaiting the president who will say at the beginning, "please hold your applause until the end." In my opinion, President Obama's first State of the Union address was good, not only because I stayed awake, but also because he spoke to a reality that worries me: the hyper-partisanship in our nation and the effect this has on our public discourse and on public policy.

President Obama spoke about what the American people deserve. He said, "And what the American people hope -- what they deserve -- is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans to work through our differences, to overcome the numbing weight of our politics."

As a nation, we are basically divided into two ideological camps -- conservative, small government people and progressive, big government people. There are subsections and intersections of these larger divisions: libertarians who believe in small government and freedom from government interference in personal matters -- abortion, gay rights, and the like. Big government progressives also want freedom from government interference in our civil liberties. Republicans tend to be small government conservatives and Democrats tend to be big government progressives. (Conservative small government Democrats are making the passage of health-care reform difficult.)

The problems come when our elected officials speak about complex issues in ideological slogans. For example, whenever I hear an elected official dismiss either of the health-care reform bills that has passed as a "government takeover of health care," I know that this individual is not serious. He or she is either ill-informed or being purposefully disingenuous. Whenever I hear an elected official say that health-care reform without a public option is not true reform, I also know that this person is not being serious.

All the issues that President Obama spoke about are complex issues that cannot and ought not to be reduced to ideological sound bites. To the extent that we tolerate this, we have the government we deserve. There is a moral logic that begins by asking the question: What is our fitting response to a particular event and to our moment in history? The question before us is this: What is our fitting response to hyper-partisanship and a shallow ideologically driven public discourse? I say that our fitting response is to require that the people we have elected to make public policy speak to us with facts, cogent logic, and a depth of analysis that is more than a few words that fit on a bumper sticker. For us to be able to recognize this, we have to educate ourselves on the issues.

We can do this through our faith communities. When we do ministry to the homeless, we ought to educate ourselves about the history and the causes of homelessness. When we volunteer for the food pantry, we ought to learn about poverty and hunger in our nation and in the world. When we plan mission trips and raise money to send to other countries, we ought to learn about them and about their history with the United States.

When we know more, we ask better questions and expect better answers. When we insist on real answers and bipartisan cooperation to make our nation and our world better, we will have done our part to have the government we deserve.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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