If a biblical prophet gave the 2006 State of the Union address, what would the message be?
The prophet Nathan might retell his story to King David about the rich man who took the poor man’s only lamb and grilled it to feed a guest, rather than taking a lamb from his own abundant herd. If politicians in the chamber, like David, became angry about such an abuse of power, Nathan would remind them of what happened “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle.”
Nathan would tell them that King David went to war because he could. Nathan would recount that on a late afternoon David spied a beautiful woman bathing, summoned her to his palace and impregnated her, because he could. When she sent word to him of her pregnancy, he called her husband home from the battlefront, because he could.
When Uriah, a military officer, refused to sleep with his wife to cover up the king’s sexual assault, the king made his officer get drunk, because he could. When a drunken Uriah kept his abstinence standards, the king ordered him back to battle, because he could. Then David had Uriah killed, because he could.
Nathan would tell the president, his cabinet, members of Congress, lobbyists, the power elite and the listening nation that such abuse of power is wrong with woeful consequences.
Another prophet, Amos, could condemn self-righteous Republicans for pandering to the religious right and pretending that GOP stands for God’s Only Party. He would condemn the Republicans who utter pious prayers on public street corners. He would blast the Justice Sunday crowd for their worship services that mix ideological agendas with diluted religion.
Speaking for God, Amos would repeat one of his most famous lines: “I hate, I despise your feasts and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them.”
Amos would then turn to the grinning Democrats with a blistering warning against playing at religion. He would warn them that peppering speeches with religious talk doesn’t make them religious. He would speak against watering down religion for the sake of finding a common denominator with the nonreligious.
Without a teleprompter and rehearsed applause lines, Amos would tell the White House and Congress that God expects them to stop trampling on the poor in order to build expensive homes, to stop taking bribes in the form of golf trips, to stop rigging the system to enrich their friends and to stop turning justice into wormwood.
Amos would surely look at the Supreme Court justices, one or two in particular, and condemn their corporate-sponsored hunting trips and posh vacations at private resorts.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he would say.
Still another prophet, Zechariah, would repeat the message of care for the poor, the weak, the powerless and even the aliens in the land.
He would tell national leaders that God wants them to “show kindness and mercy to one another … and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
But of course, everyone knows that Monday evening’s address will be built on the shifting sand of politics, not the solid rock of biblical wisdom.
Partisans will draft it. The White House’s senior political staff will sign off on the final version. The president will deliver his speech with much pomp to other politicians, tweaking his opponents and winking at his proponents. Pundits will critique the speech on TV news shows, seeing it only in political terms. Pollsters will gauge public reaction to determine the effectiveness of political themes and terms.
The address will contain references to the divine, some explicit and implicit nods at the import of religious life and a few generic comments about values. The final words will call for God to bless the union. The entire event will be a sacred moment for the civil religion of politics.
That fact, however, should not determine how people of faith think about the State of the Union address. We need not hear and reflect on it only in political terms. We need to measure it against what we would like to have heard if the speech had been formed by the prophets in the biblical witness.
When people of faith listen to the State of the Union, we need to listen with the words of Nathan, Amos, Zechariah and the other prophets. They spoke for God, and people of faith across the ages codified their messages into the sacred text called the Bible.
Those of us who treasure the bedrock of our faith need to assess the president’s words against the moral agenda of the Bible.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.