I love watching the State of the Union address because it teaches me so much about the American mythology and civil religion. You can look back at the archive to see how I’ve commented on the previous administration’s speeches (2014 SOTU, 2016 SOTU, and Obama’s farewell address). One thing remains certain: the biggest myth that Christians must refute is the idea that salvation (or, in Trump’s case, “greatness”) comes from believing in America. It is so transparently present in every presidential address that I view, we might miss it. Stephen Miller, the 32-year-old Duke graduate responsible for Trump’s speech on Tuesday night, made sure to include the civil religion narrative all over the speech.
The economy won’t save you
From what I saw, Trump basically emphasized the economic success that occurred in the U.S. during his administration (not to get too wonkish, but it’s hard to create a causal relationship between any of Trump’s bold claims with the work of his administration—most experts simply say it’s too early for such conclusions). But even as Trump was enumerating the economic success, I thought that this might not be the worst speech ever. Black unemployment continues to trend lower (again, it has been trending lower for years), and unemployment in general is lower too. All these things are good, I think. Hearing the stories of people whose lives have recently changed was heart-warming, even. I liked hearing about Corey Adams, the welder in Ohio, and the success of Staub Manufacturing (Stanley Staub and Sandy Keplinger’s small business).
The trouble, of course, is when we rely on economic success for our salvation. The economy ebbs and flows, it goes up and down, and with little influence from an administration in many cases, but we can’t rely on its success in order to be secure and saved. That’s why I’m glad to be part of forming an alternative economy in community. One where sharing things in common and looking after one another is common place. The Christian economy is about sharing and mutuality.
Trump continued to channel Reagan’s trickle-down approach to economics; that is, huge tax cuts for the rich will somehow “trickle down” to the poor and liberate them. It is a cornerstone of free-market thinking: succumbing to the greed of the richest will end up helping the poor. Trump tried to tell us that the success of the economy would be bolstered by the Republican tax plan and by further capitalizing on the greed of the richest. He spent much of his speech talking about tax cuts for the wealthy—and he even falsely bragged about his administration’s cuts as being the biggest ever (you know how Trumper loves superlatives)—they were not, in fact.
Immigrants aren’t your enemies
Tax cuts to the rich will protect U.S. economic growth, and what else will? Making sure immigrants don’t steal it all. Trump’s policy proposals were all without any sort of detail (especially the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill he mentioned). Except for one—immigration. Trump doubled-down on American fear of immigration by citing horrible incidents from a gang called MS13. Most of Trump’s stories of citizens were not as uplifting as the aforementioned Staub Manufacturing. Rather, they were stories of despair and death; their expressed purpose to increase hatred and decrease compassion.
Even without any mention of his affair with a porn star (whom he paid off to stay quiet, and who is currently denying the entire ordeal ever happened), Trump’s priorities in this speech are decidedly anti-Christian. The Bible is full of passages about welcoming the stranger and harsh warnings for the rich. For Trump, his speech surrounded lining the pockets of the wealthy and making sure he increased fear around our neighbors while reducing our effort to be hospitable. He focused on negative stories in order to reduce the compassion of Americans, and say that the threat to U.S. economic success isn’t the unregulated greed of the rich, but brown friends from the south.
Patriotism and militarism are too often connected
Finally, Trump excitedly spoke of increasing funding for the military, the nuclear program, and heralded keeping Guantanamo Bay open (that’s our communist-style prison in Cuba—our “gulag,” so to speak). He again painted North Korea as the biggest threat to American freedom and started beating the war drums loudly. To be fair, this is a common feature to most of these addresses. A cornerstone of American patriotic mythology is military might, and Trump is no exception to this.
Of course, Jesus is a peacemaker, Circle of Hope is a peacemaking church. Nothing is more anti-Christian than killing, rather than loving our enemies. Holding on to wealth as security, instead of mutuality. Welcoming our neighbor, instead of sowing seeds of hate and fear.
Trump was much more polished and less unhinged than he usually is. He didn’t say anything that was too embarrassing and kept out of the culture wars for the most part (ironically, he made no reference to the issues that so-called Evangelicals voted him in for—abortion and gay marriage). But it was clear to me that his priorities, even though polished, were still in opposition to the Gospel and to Jesus. We need to keep prophesying. We need to keep answering that “U.S.A! U.S.A!” chant that ended the speech. We have our own God to declare the name of.