Thursday, February 9, 2023
It's Thursday, February 9th, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Expand the Government. Extend Radical Abortion Rights.: President Biden’s State of the Union Address
On Tuesday night, Joseph Biden, the President of the United States, stood in the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives and delivered what was known as the State of the Union Address. It is a fixture of American politics, and it has a constitutional basis.
The U.S. Constitution in Article II, Section 3 says that it is the responsibility of the President of the United States to report periodically to Congress concerning information about the State of the Union. Now that union is the United States of America and the State of the Union is the status of the country. Thus, the chief executive is to advise and inform Congress concerning the State of the Union. Again, Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution, but there is no indication in the Constitution as to the exact schedule by which such addresses or information conveyances should be made. It doesn't even have to be an address. It is simply the conveyance of information from the chief executive to the Congress. But it is now very much a part of the formality of the American democratic process.
And by the way, conservatives understand that that formality, those habits of government and habits of Congress, habits of the presidency, they're all important to our constitutional form of government. There is nothing divinely mandated about the State of the Union Address. It is constitutionally mandated, at least something like this kind of address. But presidents have understood the power of concentrating this kind of conveyance of information into an address and President George Washington set a precedent there. But there are also those who have felt that the president arriving before the Congress can really face two different dangers.
We might speak of those dangers as one high and one low. The danger high is the danger that a State of the Union Address with the president speaking to the assembled Congress can look a bit monarchal. Rather than having a king or queen, you have the president and since the president is doing the talking as the nation's chief executive, it can appear, especially in terms of democratic habit, something like the king and the court, a monarchial setting and a court setting. It could look that way. The other danger is the exact opposite, and that is that it lowers the presidency for the nation's chief executive to appear before Congress as if summoned there.
So it is important for us to understand how such habits, how such democratic, that is to say politically democratic institutions have evolved and developed over time. For one thing, thinking through these issues, the etiquette of the State of the Union Address is intended to avoid either the high or the low problem. The president is not summoned before Congress. The president is invited to report to a joint session of Congress and the president, unlike a monarch, cannot convene the session himself. The president has to be invited. The president cannot simply announce that he's going to be speaking to a joint session of Congress. He has to follow the decorum of asking to be invited to appear before a joint session of Congress.
And the fact that it is a joint session of Congress is graphically demonstrated. As you look at the platform and you look behind the president, there are two national officials. First of all the Vice President of the United States, but the vice president is not there precisely as vice president, but rather to fulfill the responsibility of the vice president to serve as the presiding officer of the Senate. So the vice president is not representing the office of the vice president. The vice president is representing the United States Senate. On the other hand, you have the speaker of the House and the speaker of the House is of course a high constitutional officer in the United States of America and you have the two constitutional officers, the Vice President of the United States serving in the role of President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Now as you're looking at that, you do just need to pause a moment regardless of your partisan identification and understand there is something here to the pageant of constitutional government that is absolutely important. And so even if you were irritated by the address last night, even if you would rather a different president be giving that State of the Union Address, let's just put that on pause for a moment, you just have to recognize the event itself is one that is important to the United States of America. But then we need to notice something else. What took place on Tuesday night, and this is a bipartisan issue now, what took place on Tuesday night was a highly political and indeed hard-edged partisan event. It just was. That is not a tribute to our constitutional form of government, nor to the decorum of a representative constitutional democracy.
President Joseph Biden's State of the Union Address was extremely partisan and it was partisan in more than one way. It was partisan in spirit and it was partisan in substance, and the president understood what he was doing. As you saw the president on television, he was clearly enjoying giving the address that took just a little bit over an hour to deliver. Now that raises another issue. To whom was the president speaking? Well, the answer would be he was speaking to the American people not so much to Congress. He was speaking to voters in the 2024 election, not so much to members of the House and to members of the Senate.
That raises another bipartisan issue. Joseph Biden was not the first president to politicize in an overt and frankly, crass way the State of the Union Address. You have the State of the Union Address actually being amped up in its political importance during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980. Reagan of course had a successful career as an actor. He understood stagecraft and he also understood the political stakes as he was trying to overcome a Congress that was ideologically recalcitrant to his reforms. And so President Reagan used the State of the Union Address and similar kinds afore, but let's face it, the State of the Union Address is singular in its historical effect. President Reagan used it to speak over the heads of Congress directly to the American people by means of television.
Second thing to understand, radio first, and secondly, television have created a massive distortion field for any kind of address like this, any kind of political context like this, but in particular the State of the Union Address. It is an incredible power of the American presidency that everyone has to welcome him. People have to stand and applaud when he walks in the room. He is treated in that context almost as if he is an elected monarch. But then again, he also is subjected to catcalls and to statements of disagreement. Some of these have been crass, some of them are simply a part of what we might call congressional politics.
But interestingly, as you watched President Biden give the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, he was not only slinging the politics very intentionally, he was slinging the politics with obvious personal relish. He was enjoying it and he let it show. That's a reminder that it's not just a political context, it is a personal context and Americans, many were watching the address Tuesday night just to find out how they would evaluate President Biden is doing not so much politically as just physically and mentally as he is right now, the oldest person ever to serve as President of the United States. And, of course, as it is widely expected that he will announce a run for reelection. And by that time, of course, he will be not only the oldest president, he will also be two years older than he is now. Or put it another way, if he is reelected to a second term, at the end of that term, he would be six years older than he is right now.
In political terms, the most important thing to note is that President Biden presented what can only be described as a call for a radical expansion of the government and a radical expansion of the welfare state. He was calling for incredible amounts of public spending and that on top of what he bragged about as trillions of dollars of new spending through bills that were passed in the first two years of his term. In a noteworthy manner, the theme of his address was "finish the job" and he called out Congress 12 times in his address lasting just a little bit more than an hour. He called upon them to "finish the job."
That is clearly a theme that is likely to show up in a reelection effort by President Biden, but it also points to something else and that is that he intends to run and he was basically bragging before the American people about what he saw as legislative achievements in the first two years of his term. But here's the fact, he is not likely to be able to talk about any very significant legislative achievements in the last two years of his term precisely because his party lost control of the House of Representatives. It means everything that when you look at the visuals there of the president delivering the address, the speaker of the House sitting behind him is a Republican, even as the vice president is a Democrat.
And so you really are looking at the fact that the president has two huge problems. His first problem is Republican control the House of Representatives. His second problem is the fact that even though the Democrats have the majority in the leadership in the Senate, it is a narrow majority and not even close to the 60 votes needed to achieve cloture or to overcome a filibuster on most legislation. So the president is likely to be looking in the rearview mirror for the remainder of his term for this kind of huge legislation. So here's the point, if the president really didn't think he was getting this massive spending expansion through the second two years of his first term, then when he talked about "finish the job," he in this context was not really talking about 2023. He was talking about the presidential election year in 2024.
Just as a matter of political interest, it's going to be fascinating to see how the response to the State of the Union Address plays into the competing narratives about the fitness or the health condition of President Joe Biden, as there is open speculation about a second run for office. That's going to be a very interesting thing and the big interest there is not going to have much to do with Republicans, the opposing party. It's going to have a great deal to do with the analysis, the comments, the points, the arguments being made or sometimes made only in private, not publicly about what is really believed to be the case in terms of the reelection of President Biden. The Democrats are going to be the most interesting part of that equation, at least until the general election of 2024.
Before we leave the big "finish the job" theme of President Biden in the State of the Union Address, we need to note that the Joe Biden who delivered this address as President of the United States in February of 2023 was basically criticizing Congress for previous legislation in which, just to state the obvious, he himself had a part in terms of the years, indeed the decades he served in the United States Senate. But, that's just the metamorphosis we have witnessed when it comes to Joe Biden. He is in many ways simply, and this is true of political positions, he's just not the person he was when he was an incumbent senator over the course stretching over four decades and for that matter when he spent eight years as Vice President of the United States under President Barack Obama. This is Joe Biden saying to the Democratic Party, "I am who you have been waiting for."
Morally speaking, there's a lot to talk about in the State of the Union Address, but the most important issue addressed by the president in the address on Tuesday night was the issue of abortion. And I was absolutely appalled by his comments. The President of the United States raised the issue of abortion in the context of the Dobbs decision handed down last year, reversing Roe v. Wade. And he openly declared this, "Congress must restore the right the Supreme Court took away last year and codify Roe v. Wade." And then when he pointed to efforts on the other side, the pro-life side, he also said this as a threat, "Make no mistake, if Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it."
Now, just a couple of things to note here, because we have looked in detail at President Joe Biden and his Catholic identity and the issue of abortion. We've looked at his changes, indeed rather radical changes, metamorphosis on the issue of abortion. We saw how he had to completely change his position on the Hyde Amendment that has prevented American taxpayers being coerced to pay for abortions. He made that U-turn as he was running for president for the Democratic nomination and he did so because he had to, if he was going to have any hope of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. He basically did a 180 degree turn on an issue of fundamental moral importance. He also has spoken throughout his Senate career of the fact that he doesn't celebrate abortion and he has also supported some limitations upon abortion.
But the Joe Biden who showed up on Tuesday night at the United States Capitol to deliver the State of the Union Address is an unabashed, unashamed, frankly radical proponent of abortion. And you could see this, and this is the most heartbreaking part of this. It's not just a President of the United States serving the cause of the culture of death. It is not just a president expressing a radically permissive, indeed demanding a radically permissive regime on abortion. It was the president demonstrating some political relish in daring Congress to pass pro-life legislation that he would then, by his own word, veto.
As you think about the deep worldview divide, the tremendous, almost incalculable moral divide in our country, understand that the comments made by the president in the State of the Union Address, and here I just say historically, especially made by a president in the State of the Union Address, given his ardent support for abortion rights virtually now without limit or restriction, and given his threat even offered as something of a challenge to Congress to present him with pro-life legislation that he would then veto.
What we see is that that moral and worldview divide, and Christianity understands this, the Christian worldview fully understands this, is inevitably translated into a political divide where voters have a say. They participate in an election. They elect constitutional officers because in that electoral process, in the process of that kind of political campaigning and in the election itself, you have the American citizens.
Now beyond any question, electing a position on abortion, electing a moral judgment on the status of unborn human life, that is not something voters may choose or choose not to do. It is now baked into the cake of our national elections, increasingly into local and statewide elections too.
Politics is the Arena of the Performative — But How Do We Discern What Political Actions Are Genuine and Not Just for Show?
Next, just as you're thinking about the State of the Union Address, thinking about how Christians should observe politics and the culture around us, we need to ask a question, how much of this is merely performative?
Now, I am using that word because it has increasingly become a part of our political conversation. It's a good thing for us to think about in worldview perspective. Sometimes people do things in order to be seen doing them. It's performative as if they are performers on a stage. Sometimes people say things for effect or they say things in order to be seen and heard as the kind of people who say such things. And so sometimes you're looking at someone making a statement and you're wondering, do they actually believe that? Have they thought that through or is this in a social context, just a performative act?
Now, the use of that kind of language, by the way, underlines the importance of the words we speak and of the context of language, a good thing for Christians to think about, because the Bible takes with great seriousness the substance and the content and the meaning of human speech. By the way, we are made in God's image and that means that we are capable of speech. Even as God speaks to us in His Word, we are capable of speech ourselves, not only understanding it, we are capable of speaking and indeed speaking to each other.
Now, the idea of performative language goes back to about the midpoint of the 20th century in a big way, and it goes back to the realization among linguistic scholars that certain words in certain forms of speech function differently than others. Sometimes speech actually does things. That is to say it doesn't just describe things, it does things. If you are talking to a group of soldiers and they are in a context of battle and you say, "Shoot." Well, guess what? Something's going to happen when you say that word.
In the Christian tradition, there is another understanding of performative language. It has to do with this. When you have a man and a woman standing before a congregation ready to enter into the covenant of marriage, there are certain words, these days most of us know them as vows, derived in one way or another from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, that's the language you would recognize, and you know the response to the questions of the covenant and the vows come down to, "I do." And so in that context, when the husband and the wife, when the groom and the bride both say, "I do," well, they did. And guess what? They are married and they would not be married if they had not articulated those words, "I do."
And so in that case, the words "I do" are substantive and they are also performative. But here's where the thing gets interesting because the use of the word performative as something of a criticism these days comes more from the left than from the right. Now, everyone is capable of doing things that are merely performative. We do them to be seen doing them, to be known as the kind of people who do such things. This may be on the left standing in a protest, holding a sign, "Occupy Wall Street," or, well, just consider the slogan of the day. On the right, there can be others who act in a performative way. You don't know what they actually believe about anything. You just know that this is what they're saying.
In politics, just understand this: left, right and center. Politics is the arena of the performative. People give speeches in order for the speeches to have effects. You don't necessarily have a great glimpse inside the soul of a politician when the politician is giving a speech because the speech in this sense is a performance. Now, I'm not insinuating that they never mean what they say or that even in general, they don't mean what they say. But the point is, especially when you add television cameras to the mix and now social media as well, there's a lot of performative action going on.
Now on the left, this idea performativity, it also comes up in the critique of the fact that many people on the left say to others on the left, "Look, you're really not with us. You're really not part of the movement. You're really not one of us. You are merely a performative ally." And this is often critiqued on the left, on the liberal side of the equation as performative allyship.
Interestingly, you see this right now in criticisms made by people on the left, even in major corporations and boy are they performing moral statements. Just think of Disney and think of others. They are putting rainbow flags. They are putting all kinds of gay pride, LGBTQ allyship statements on their websites. They're engaging in advertising and all the rest, but at least some in the LGBTQ activist movement say, "You know what? You are still active here. You're still selling your product there. You are still invested here. Your policies still are not radically progressive enough. You are just a performative ally. All you want is to be able to put the rainbow flag like a seal of approval up on your website, but you are not one of us."
Now, an immediate application here, a good deal of what President Biden did there in the context of the State of the Union Address was performative. He was in one sense, the presidential performer. What did he actually believe? What does he actually think can be accomplished? Well, you really don't know that from the address. On the other hand, let's be honest, there was a performative angle to those who were in the House of Representatives Chamber watching and reacting to the address as well, who stood and applauded, who didn't, who had a grimace on his face or her face, and who didn't, who was clearly cheering the president on at certain points and who was doing a very good job, by the way, of looking as opposed and glum as possible. There were of course even auditory statements made in the course of the State of the Union Address, that's just par for the course these days.
But the point is, at least a lot of life is performative. It is also interesting to note that a sort of neo-Marxist analysis on the left increasingly suggests that there is far more that is performative than non-performative in life. That's a bit of the cynicism right now of the left.
Performativity is Never Enough: God’s Desire for Sincere Devotion From HIs People
But nonetheless, let's just remind ourselves of something else. Jesus, in speaking to His own disciples, made very clear that in our praying to God, we are not to be performative.
We are rather to pray as he taught us to pray. Indeed, he said, "We are not to pray as the Pharisees pray in order to be seen and heard praying." As Jesus said, "They have their reward. The reward is the performance." That's a good humbling and chastening word from Jesus to his disciples, and that means to all of us, and of course, even as the disciples ask Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray," he taught us to pray in a way that is deeply devotional, intensely theological, even given to us as a pattern by the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and it is decidedly not intended to be performative.
That's a good heart check for all of us. Are we saying what we say not because we believe what we say so much as we want to be seen as the kind of people who would say such a thing? We may win some friends and political or ideological allies that way, but one thing we must always keep in mind when it comes to worship and when it comes to God, what God expects of us is by no means satisfied by the merely performative.
A good thing for us to keep in mind, not just as we're thinking about politics and culture, but as we're thinking about our own hearts even in worship.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Fort Worth, Texas, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.