President Barack Obama sought to turn the page Tuesday night in his first State of the Union address following Republicans gaining control of both houses of Congress.
Although religion only seeped in occasionally, important moral and ethical issues dominated the night’s discussions.
During his speech, Obama addressed key moral issues of sick leave and other benefits for employees, tax reform, education, immigration, climate change, abortion, same-sex marriage, torture and war.
Obama did not mention the faith community’s involvement on these issues as he has on previous occasions.
Many faith leaders across the political spectrum remained silent about Obama’s primetime address.
Even politically outspoken Southern Baptists like Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler offered virtually no response.
Joni Ernst, who joined the U.S. Senate this month after winning a seat in Iowa in November, delivered the official Republican response. She focused on many of the same moral issues but sidestepped religion in her short speech.
“Tonight, we turn the page,” Obama stated early in his speech after briefly noting the difficulties of the first 15 years of the new century.
Obama then sought to regain momentum as he enters the final two years of his presidency, a period when a president is often called a “lame duck.”
With Republicans holding their largest congressional majority since 1931, Obama sought to prove he was not politically crippled.
Despite attention given to key moral issues, Obama invoked religious issues just four times in his hour-long speech.
One of those moments, however, came as he followed the tradition of U.S. presidents over the last three decades of ending speeches with ceremonial “God bless” statements.
Ernst’s only religious reference came with a similar closing “God bless” remark.
The first religious reference came as Obama justified his recent moves to shift U.S.-Cuban relations.
Arguing that “we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama recognized Alan Gross in the balcony.
Gross, who spent five years in a Cuban prison before being released last month, pumped his fist in the air and mouthed “thank you” as he received the loudest applause of the night.
Obama then recognized Pope Francis for playing an important role in bringing U.S. and Cuban officials together to improve diplomatic relations. The negotiations led to the release of Gross and other prisoners.
“As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps,'” Obama stated. “These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.”
Baptists in Cuba and elsewhere praised last month’s shift in relations. Many congressional Republicans, however, oppose the changes.
Later in his speech, Obama urged respect for “human dignity” and rights like “free speech.”
He also noted the need to “condemn the persecution … of religious minorities.” In particular, he criticized “deplorable anti-Semitism” and “offensive stereotypes of Muslims.”
Although Obama specifically noted the recent terrorist attack in Paris that dominated the attention of journalists and international politicians, he did not mention larger attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Ernst mentioned both France and Nigeria in the same breath.
Samson Ayokunle, president of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, recently criticized the international community for ignoring the attacks in Nigeria.
Ayokunle noted that Christians are particularly targeted, but that the international community appears to treat Nigerians as “less human” than those killed elsewhere.
Another religious reference came as Obama alluded to a biblical passage about being our brother’s keeper, which has been his most common biblical reference since he started campaigning for president.
“So I know the good and optimistic and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper,” Obama said. “And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example.”
Obama used the “brother’s keeper” reference to urge a focus on “better politics.”
“A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears,” Obama argued. “A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other, where we talk issues and values and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments or trivial gaffes or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.”
Shortly after offering this exhortation, Obama left the podium to applause. However, it remains to be seen if he and the other politicians in that chamber Tuesday night can actually turn the page to practice “better politics.”
It also remains to be seen if faith leaders will engage the issues addressed by Obama and Ernst and lead the way in pushing for “better politics.”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.