‘They deserve a vote’: Call and response in Obama’s State of the Union

Andrew Harrer BLOOMBERG Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, second left, and husband Mark Kelly, retired space shuttle commander, listen to U.S. … Continued

Andrew Harrer

BLOOMBERG

Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, second left, and husband Mark Kelly, retired space shuttle commander, listen to U.S. President Barack Obama, unseen, deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013.

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.”

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • WmarkW

    >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.

    Although the represent “big government,” they are also a debt to the future recipients who paid for others’ old age security over their working decades, and deserve to be paid back what was represented to them as a trust fund. It’s not analogous to creating a new entitlement program financed by new taxes on its non-beneficiaries.

  • jcline1

    Well, if defending the helpless is the President’s priority, then we should first start with victims of convenience abortion, who also “deserve a vote.”

    Wonder if Obama’s ‘amen wing’ would shout that up. Doubtful. The President is silent on the murder of millions of American babies in utero.

    Let the weakest among us be first — starting with human lives at their most vulnerable, when they most “deserve a vote” on their own existence.

    Until there is justice for the unborn there can be no true justice for anyone else.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    ‘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.’

    If these three sentences have an intelligible meaning it’s completely lost on me. I’m becoming more and more convinced every day that religious people have precisely no clue what their own words mean when they start trumpeting about spirituality.

  • allinthistogether

    ScottinVA: this suggestion to arm low income citizens (or any large group concentrated in an area) is a pure “wishful” thinking solution to violence. It is based on the pretense that everyone who has a gun uses good judgement all the time, for which there is plenty of counter-evidence – humans make mistakes frequently. It also ignores the well documented fact that gun fatalities are higher in households that own a gun than they are in households that don’t own a gun. The reality is that when people who are angry get their hands on a gun, they often shoot other people. More guns is like pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out.

  • allinthistogether

    Until there is justice for the starving children of the world, the girls raped by older men and forced to carry the baby to term, the innocent shot down by guns sold for profit, the people of Africa killed by the oil companies we subsidize, there can be no true justice for anyone else . . .

  • MichelleKinPA

    ScottinVA,

    You know this how???? Are you God?

    And to say the Christian faith is logical and rational – that’s your statement. Personally, I have a problem with the Apostle Paul. So did Peter.

    I have a problem with the “believing in Jesus” part. I absolutely hate the “not perfect – just forgiven” bumper sticker. Hate to tell you this, but you can’t be a jerk Monday thru Saturday and think it all goes away on Sunday. The actions must follow the spirit, so those who sin repeatedly don’t have repentance.

    Scott, judge not lest ye be judged.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    “The Christian faith is rational, and logical, and scientific…”

    I believe you just finished typing something about borrowing jargon? Even if the Christian religion was manifestly true, I would probably still reject it since it seems to entirely rob its constituents of their sense of irony.

  • uniteusnow1

    Wmark.

    Ever heard of Hadiya Pendleton?
    The 15 year old Black honor student majorette killed in Chicago.
    Two Black gang members were arrested for her murder.

    Hadiya Parents parents were sitting with the First Lady.

    The President mentioned told the audience about Hadiya in his speech.

  • WmarkW

    Yes, my point is that Chicago doesn’t do Stop and Frisk.
    They have local government that would never anger the criminal-prone segment of their society.

    Even for their benefit.

  • Greg Wagner

    Obama requesting a vote just shows how little common sense he has. All he will do with a vote is put the Dems on the chopping block so when they vote yes they are then voted out of office. They still won’t have enough votes yet the ones who vote yes will lose their jobs. Congress is saying don’t bring it to the floor for a reason. He just doesn’t get it. I voted Dem last 2 elections because they haven’t touched our 2nd amendment to this point, but if they do, I will be changing my vote and I’m sure I’m not the only one. More people support what our forefathers started than party loyalty.

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