Yesterday afternoon a friend of mine, who works in the Beltway as a political consultant, informed me that he was joining some “good old boys” to drink bourbon, smoke cigars, and watch the State of the Union, to which I said that was a sure recipe for the stomach flu. Civic duty, I added, should compel me to hear the President, but I planned instead to take a vacation from politics, at least for one night, and watch an episode of Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz. After all, culture matters more than politics.
As soon as I turned on my television set, I got hooked by the theater of power. The address was predictably boring in content and vague in details, singing a kumbaya refrain about the “American family” after the Tucson tragedy. One thing stood out, and none of the East Coast pundits had the acumen to discern this: President Obama’s language about “winning the future” and “reinventing ourselves” rests on an Enlightenment anthropology (the self) that is antithetical to a biblical anthropology (the creature).
Under the former view, the human being has autonomous power to choose his identity and destiny. Whether it is environmental rescue, technological innovation, educational pursuits, same-sex love, or economic progress, Obama assured us:
The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.
Under the latter view, the human being only has derivative power insofar as his identity is shaped by the Potter, who circumscribes its possibilities, and his future is governed by Providence, who decrees if there shall be any tomorrows. Contrary to Kennedy, the future is a gift, down to our next breath, and therefore we must receive – not achieve – it through the daily exercise of duty and virtue. The distinction between achieving the future and receiving the future is one with a difference. If the future is a possession, we are owners of time. If, however, the future is a gift, we are stewards of time. For the Christian, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). One of those good and perfect gifts is time. We are not, as Obama frequently envisions, the ones bending “the arc of history.” That belongs to God alone; he entrusts us with an ethic of stewardship.
What we needed to hear last night was an exhortation to self-sacrifice: paying off debts, cutting spending, and ending some entitlements. Instead, we heard a fantasy of self-creation, which has a long, bipartisan pedigree, encapsulated in Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism: God helps those who help themselves. Proof of the Fool-in-Chief lies in his closing remarks, where a hollow benediction – “God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America” – followed his call to individual and national authorship – “our destiny remains our choice.” Why seek divine favor when we are already favored, by an idolatrous faith in humanity, to win the future and reinvent ourselves?