A Belated (But Still Relevant) Response to the President’s State of the Union Address

Nearly a month ago, fellow Open Tabernacle collaborator and creator of the unique and deeply thought-provoking blog Bilgrimage; William Lindsey suggested to me that I post an analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union address– particularly in light of and regarding the greatly rumored reference to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Given that at the time I was having a hard time coming up with a topic for my next posting I readily accepted this proposal. However, for numerous different reasons its taken me awhile to get around to reflecting on what the President actually said in his speech. But now, I am blessed to finally have the opportunity to do so.

Most of the speech that night was composed of rhetorical signs by the President to assure the American people that the economy was still the most important issue on his mind–as it is for most individuals in these perilous times. For the first two thirds of the speech President Obama recounted how difficult these times are for all citizens of this nation and gave numerous examples (most notably the economic Stimulus) on how initiatives taken by his administration had not ignored these circumstances but had instead bolstered and strengthened the economic infrastructure of our country from plummeting to disaster.

Another small, but crucial, segment of the President’s speech resonated personally with me in a profound way. President Obama spoke of how the importance and availability of meaningful and genuinely qualitative outlets of scholastic education can never be underestimated or taken for granted. He then went on to propose measures that would make college more affordable to children that come from working families and suggested that individuals who chose careers in public service to the country would have their entire allocations of debt from student loans revoked and eliminated after ten years. All of these things sounded great to me as a high school graduate who is still struggling and finding methods to make my way through college.

Then, came probably the most anticipated segment of the speech. During a period in which he reflected on our nation’s defining sense of character and ideals that distinguish us from other countries he reflected on what it means to truly be recognized as being “created equal” in accordance with the the words of our Constitution. He recognized the passage of the Matthew Shepherd Act which now finally enshrined under federal law the criminalization of discriminating or committing acts of violence against a person because of their sexual orientation. And then finally, came the line that everyone had been waiting for–the President promised to “work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

It was a stunning moment, one that for me, almost brought me to tears and–in a small way–briefly catapulted me back to that unforgettable night of two years before in which Barack Obama had won the presidential election and the sentiments of hope and change seemed so imminently tangible and real. After so many disappointments during the previous year, many had become disillusioned with the President when some campaign promises were not fulfilled as quickly as some would have preferred. I myself had many reservations, probably the chief of them being when the President journeyed to New Jersey to promote his Democratic candidate in the gubernatorial race there while ignoring a ballot initiative in the nearby state of Maine, which was simultaneously occurring, that strove to repeal the legalization of marriage equality which had been signed into law earlier that year. In the end, hate, ignorance, and fear lamentably won out and voters chose to strip gay and lesbians of rights that had been afforded them by the state’s legislature just months before. In the face of all of this, President Barack Obama remained silent…

I’ll admit that during a fit of rage following the news of this incident I briefly asked myself if a President Hillary Clinton would have brought any swifter deliverance of movement on promises concerning LGBT rights. Whether President Obama chose not to comment out of fear for reaping politically unwarranted results or offending potential allies will probably never be known.

However, during the speech, the President had a chance to reaffirm his commitment to LGBT rights and he did so concretely during his State of the Union address. Another encouraging and noteworthy point worth mentioning is how and what kind of operation he framed repeal of DADT as. After he swore the discriminatory military ban, off the cuff, he described it as being “the right thing to do.” It was using this same language and within the same moral framework that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces; Admiral Mike Mullen, would describe lifting the ban declaring, “It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do” and defining it as a matter of “integrity” during a hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee just a week following the President’s deliverance of the State of the Union.

So, just to be clear; the President of the United States, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the Secretary of Defense on numerous occasions, have all described lifting Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as a matter of justice and upholding the nation’s Constitutional promise of equality for all. When this matter is viewed as affording a minority their due rights under the law as a matter of civic justice and not just a concession to a group of selfish individuals the traditional parameters of this contentious debate are significantly changed.

Here, the question isn’t what constitutes marriage under the law but simply whether an individual, who may be slightly different from the average fold of most Americans, should be afforded the same protections and dignity given to all citizens of this country under the law. Polls show that even if the issue of same-sex marriage is still a hotly contested issue when the statistics are analyzed state by state–the matter of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly (when it comes to all areas of their lives, including who they love) is one where the majority is solidly in favor of repeal, even among the Republican Party.

Perhaps this is the most appropriate context for the debate on the morality of homosexuality in our nation to be carried out. Even though it certainly isn’t the first place one might look to advance the cause of equality and tolerance within society; it definitely is an area where almost everyone can affirm the sense of patriotism, fidelity, and allegiance held by all those who chose to enter it and put their lives on the line for the sake of our nation’s protection and freedom. If equal treatment can’t be afforded to our nation’s most treasured citizens in uniform who else can expect legitimately to enjoy it?

Once our nation has reflected and moved beyond this issue the Church cannot be left behind but eventually must affirm as well that there is no precondition to clothing oneself with the “armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11-18) and being an emissary of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The question is, when will the whole of Christendom realize this fact and come to terms with it? How much longer will it take to become an acknowledged fact?

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About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a social justice visionary, writer, and legal worker in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a contributing author to “Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics.” Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

2 thoughts on “A Belated (But Still Relevant) Response to the President’s State of the Union Address

  1. I think your last paragraph exhibits a certain ethnocentricity. The fact of the matter is that Christendom is becoming a Southern religion, as I am sure you know. The morality of homosexuality is not a concern in the emerging Church, its closed business, not even on the agenda.

    The idea that the United States domestic policy would somehow influence moral theologians in Rome, let alone in Africa or South America strikes me as naive. If I’m not mistaken there are several other Western countries that allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military (something I’m unopposed to by the way) and offer homosexual unions equivilancy to marriage, and the Vatican seems unmoved.

    I am curious to know what specific influence you think Obama or the United States enjoys in Catholic Theology that these other countries lack?

  2. The matter is not whether the United States could shape Vatican policy, but whether a lesson in appreciating and upholding the inherant human rights of all citizens might be learned when it comes affording members of the military the courtesy to be open about who they are.

    In a sense, the Church has its own “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Since the election of Benedict XVI its been made nearly impossible for priests who acknowledge having a homosexual orientation to be ordained to the priesthood without having to surpress their homosexuality. True, celibacy is current a precondition to the priesthood, but why can a homosexual man who has indeed dedicated himself to celibacy not be open about his own sexual orientation? It seems as if all of this is more fear of wanting to confront the matter of homosexuality head on, continuing to buy into ignorant and misinformed notions of what it truly is–defining it as a disordered condition, even skapegoating it, falsely I might add, as one of the causes of the sexual abuse crisis.

    Of course President Obama does not enjoy any kind of direct influence in Catholic theology, but watching him promote an America that embraces all peoples despite their diversity, even sexual orientation, sends a powerful message to all those throughout the world who fear any kind of expressions of diversity against what has been the traditional held “norm” of the centuries.

    Also, I firmly believe that continuing to clasify homosexuality as a “disordered” condition, with so much psychological and scientific evidence to the contrary, is detrimental to Catholicism–both concerning its theological integrity as well as when it comes to dealing with individuals on a personal and pastoral basis.

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