Last night, with much political fanfare, President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address to Congress, members of the Supreme Court, and millions of Americans watching at home. It was his shortest speech yet, but I will give credit where credit is due: President Obama is a talented speaker and a gifted politician.
But I am leery of the disconnect between what the President envisions as a flourishing society and the means by which he proposes to get there. In fact, I am leery of the President's vision for what constitutes a flourishing society in the first place.
Foundational to my disagreements with the current state of affairs is the end to which government—our government—is established. What is our government doing, and why are they dong it? I believe this is where we have gone off the rails. Many may disagree with my assessment, and that is fine. I do have a bias; I believe one purpose of government is inherently better than other purposes of government. So when I look at how America governs her people, I believe we have suffered from serious mission drift. The causes of this drift may be complicated and convoluted, but I believe the solution (at least initially) is simple and clear.
To start, I want us to take a look at a few short quotes from some early State of the Union Addresses: George Washington's first address in 1790 and Thomas Jefferson's first address in 1801. From there, I want to compare their vision for government to our current vision for government and give, what I believe to be, our current state of the union based on the purpose of government laid out in those speeches.
In 1790, George Washington charged the Senate and the House of Representatives to pursue knowledge for their people because it helped secure their freedom. "To the security of a free constitution [knowledge] contributes in various ways...to discriminate the spirit of liberty with that of licentiousness—cherishing the first, avoiding the last—and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments [on liberty]...." That is powerful language, but it speaks clearly to the end for which Washington believed the government existed: to secure liberty (as opposed to licentiousness) for the people. This is the end toward which the government labored.
How does America's government of today line up with Washington's vision in 1790? Not well. The most glaring object is that our government today exists to secure the licentiousness of the people rather than their liberty. Remember, they are different. And I need not labor here with specifics to show that we as a country expend tremendous labors in promoting licentiousness over liberty. Moreover, our government has never controlled and restricted more aspects of commerce, property use, and business—even of small business owners—than it does now. To many, the government is merely running an extortion racket.
Thomas Jefferson shared similar sentiments with Congress in his 1801 State of the Union Address:
"The prudence and temperance of your discussions will promote within your own walls that conciliation which so much befriends rational conclusion, and by its example will encourage among our constituents that progress of opinion which is tending to unite them in object and will. That all should be satisfied with any one order of things is not to be expected; but I indulge the pleasing persuasion that the great body of our citizens will cordially concur in honest and disinterested efforts which have for their object...to establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and property, and to reduce expenses to what is necessary for the useful purposes of government."
"To establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and property." This was seen as a foundational function of government. In other words, Jefferson saw that the end of government was to secure what rightfully belonged to the people: their liberty and their property. These were not things granted by the government, but things secured by it, for they were rights endowed to us by God. And so the government was tasked with laboring toward that end.
The same is true for today, though we may not recognize it. Life, liberty, property—these are rights that God has given to us through Jesus Christ, regardless if one is a Christian. They persist regardless of governmental regime. They are "inalienable." But I believe we as a society have given up these rights (or at least given up protecting them) in a big way. How is this shown? Look at how our government takes life for granted, or rather how it has an impossible time understanding what life is. A government complicit (and supportive) in killing 1 million babies each year has no conception of what it means to protect life. And I don't trust it to labor toward that end, either.
Have we endeavored to secure liberty? I don't think so, but we have certainly labored to secure licentiousness (see above) at the expense of liberty. Our current view of government is that, if something is good, it should be free, and if something is bad, it should be prohibited. It is no way to govern a free people. (And who decides what is good or bad?)
Have we labored to secure property? Even less so. Our Executive Branch of government has 70 independent executive agencies and 15 departments, made up of unelected and unaccountable officials, many of which have unilateral authority to investigate, prosecute, and take the property of citizens who cannot vote them out of office. Some of these agencies cannot be dissolved by Congress, and their budget cannot be reduced by Congress either. It is truly "taxation without representation."
I could go on. We are in a crisis of liberty, which, I will admit, is not the worst thing in the world. There are far more repressive governments and systems that could endanger our freedom. But we are regressing. Why?
I believe that liberty begins in the hearts of a liberated people. Liberated from what? Liberated from sin through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any notion of liberty that rests on another foundation will inevitably degrade into licentiousness and a distaste for liberty. It is no accident that in the wake of massive numbers of individual conversions to Christ, there is an increase in liberal, democratic society. Freedom from sin, I believe, truly results in a free society. Liberated hearts create liberated men, and liberated men live free in the places they find themselves in.
So how do we get back to liberty? We preach the gospel and make disciples. We pray for a reformation of the hearts of our neighbors and a turning of the people from their sin to their salvation in Christ. We must remember that liberty itself is not the end to which we labor. Rather, it is a fruit of our success in the gospel. The solution to our mission drift is simple and the call is clear: "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19–20).
Biblical worldview training and public discourse on such things are important, but they must be built on a foundation of prayer and heart transformation. Such things are only accomplished by the Holy Spirit, working as he wills. May we pray that he descends upon us—upon our country—in a great way. Only then will we enjoy the fruits of righteousness.