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"Written In Courage": An Analysis of the 2006 State of the Union Address
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 3, 2006
"We have served America through one of the most consequential periods
of our history. And it has been my honor to serve with you (the Congress)."
"Yet, the destination of history is determined by human action, and
every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing.... Before
history is written down in books, it is written in courage."
George Bush, State
of the Union Address, 2006.
Post (A14-15, February 1, 2006) printed the full text of President
Bushs fifth State of the Union Address. At the very top of the printed
address was an inserted time-line measure giving the comparative number
of minutes given to various topics in an address that lasted from 9:12
p.m. to 10:06 pm. The president talked of freedom, terrorism, radical
Islam, Iraq, Iran, homeland security, surveillance, the economy, tax cuts,
federal spending, social security, energy, health care, alternative energy,
the competitiveness initiative, education, social values, the character
of the country, hurricanes, and AIDS. He also spoke of a number of noble
issues contained in the opening and closing remarks that were not specifically
mentioned on the time-line.
The main page one headline in the New
York Times read: "Bush, Resetting Agenda, Says U.S. Must
Cut Reliance on Oil." The NYT headline above the text of the
talk itself read, as a citation from the document, "We Strive to
Be a Compassionate, Decent, Hopeful Society." The Washington Posts
headline above its copy of the text, again a quote, and not to be outdone
by the Times, read "America Is Addicted to Oil."
My reading of these Post and Times headlines suggests that
those who wrote them think the American people are somehow more concerned
with oil than anything else. Though the President did speak of developing
alternate energy sources to reduce dependence on Mideast oil, and by implication
undermining the financial basis of terrorism, he does not buy the oft-cited
thesis, frequently heard in Europe, that this war is about "oil"
and nothing else. The fact is that the war is about a self-declared enemy
who uses oil riches to promote his version of his religion. The President,
however, did finally say, in so many words, that the root problem was
"Islamic terrorists." Just what their relation to "Islamic
non-terrorists" is remains one of the great unanswered questions
of our timeone that few will really address.
Both papers ran a subject matter word count comparing the number to times
the President used certain buzz words in all of his State of the Union
addresses. For instance, he mentioned "freedom" 8 times in 2001,
14 times in 2002, 5 times in 2003, 8 times in 2004, 20 times in 2005,
and 17 times in 2006. Just what this proves, I am not sure. The word "truth,"
as far as I can recall, almost never comes up in any of the talks. I would
be reluctant to say that this nation, "under God," is founded
on a version of freedom that is indifferent or inimical to truth.
But in todays world, any claim to truth, it is said, readily translates
into "fundamentalism," which, in turn, is but another word for
terrorism. So we end up with the curious proposition that any claim to
truth, especially religious truth, is a claim to the right to terrorism.
This sequence is nonsense, but it is the ideology of much of our times.
A liberty meaning nothing but its own definition of liberty manifests,
as Aristotle already saw, a disordered society and hence disordered soul.
In general, this State of the Union Address was clear, forceful, and well
thought out. The President recognizes that decisions must be made and
that it is his constitutional duty to make them. "In this decisive
year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the
character of our country." Clearly, the choices can be bad; otherwise
there is not much sense in worrying about them. But one of the fundamental
strengths of our constitution is that it recognizes, particularly in dangerous
times, the fundamental need of a personal decision-making authority that
can act. It is striking that the President would use this very classically
sounding word "action" in this context"the destination
of history is determined by human action." This affirmation does
not necessarily mean that there is no divine action also in history, including
in our history. But divine action, as Benedict XVI said in his recent
encyclical, is often itself a prod and a stimulus to human thought and
The President spends a good deal of time in affirming again that we are
at wara war that we did not choosewith a determined and elusive
enemy. The President is very aware that others, particularly our troops,
are protecting us and that we are often only vaguely aware of what is
at stake, though military often see it at first hand. "And as we
honor our brave troops, let us never forget the sacrifices of American
military families." If we forget them, we begin to have a two-tiered
nation in which those who are protected have no truck, even in honor,
with those who do the protecting.
The alternative to choose isolationism is open to us, the President notes,
but it would be a disaster for everyone. "Our nation is committed
to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world.
Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security
of America depends on it." This is not utopianism but conceived as
a very practical necessity to prevent further attacks on our society and
that of others. These attacks continue to take place. Many attacks are
also prevented from taking place by our military and security efforts.
The President provides justification for this position on ending tyranny:
"On September 11, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed
and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction
to our country." I have some problem with this explanation. It implies
that somehow this particular attack and those like it planned for the
future can be analyzed in terms of political science theory about "failed"
states rather than in terms of the zeal and stated goals of believers
in a particular religion in their mission to carry out a world-wide conquest.
The men who conceived and carried out this mission against us, as far
as I can tell, did not come from under-privileged or backward classes.
They may be dangerous and they may be wrong, but they are doing what their
religion indicates to them. And if some within that religion do not "agree"
that this mission is the proper "interpretation" of that religion,
this does not deter those who in fact attack us from seeking to establish
a state, a caliphate, that can successfully do so. Even the term "Islamic
terrorists," which the President does use, does not get to the bottom
of the problem.
The cure for the advance of such "terrorists," in the Presidents
view, is familiar: "democracy." Even without the Hamas election,
everyone is aware that democracy must be more than just a voting mechanism.
The fear of promoting "democratic tyranny" (something in our
literature at least since the French Revolution) has long been explicitly
mentioned in papal documents on the general subject of modern movements.
Some are now even accusing the President of promoting democracy and then
refusing to deal with duly elected terrorists.
But President Bush remains insistent that this democratic factor is at
least part of the issue and that it does work. "At the start of 2006,
more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And
we do not forget the other halfin places like Syria and Burma, Zimbabwe,
North Korea, and Iranbecause the demands of justice and the peace
of this world require their freedom as well." One cannot help but
note that China is no longer mentioned in such a list, though few (except
itself) would call it an exemplar democracy. Chinawhich seems to
make most of our baseball hats and gadgetsis mentioned, with India,
as a new economic "competitor." One wonders which of the Muslim
countries would be called "democratic." But of course, the President
does not say that the efforts have yet succeeded, only that things look
The President is quite realistic in the need to keep track of potential
terrorists already within our frontiers. We simply have to know about
them. They ought not to be free to use our freedoms to destroy us. Furthermore,
"if we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not
leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores."
It does not take a genius to see that this is undoubtedly what would happen.
The President thus is a realist who will not be deflected from what is
the most serious issue facing us. He is not somehow a stubborn man acting
on his own inner needs. He is clear-sighted, observing what is there.
He saw what did happen. He knows what can happen.
And he has a streak of the Declaration of Independence in him: "Yet,
liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty
is the right and hope of all humanity." The words are also mindful
of Ciceros famous lines about natural law and its scope: "There
will not be one law in Rome, one at Athens, or one now and one later,
but all nations will be subject all the time to this one changeless and
everlasting law." We may wait some time yet for such a condition,
but it is not wrong to want itprovided it retains a careful understanding
of actual and fallen human nature.
Probably the most dramatic part of the evening was the presence of Judge
Alito, who had just been confirmed that day to the Supreme Court (seemingly
against the combined efforts of many Catholic senators worried evidently
about protecting abortion, among other unpleasant things). From a pro-life
point of view, the Presidents most forceful passage was this: "Tonight
I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of
medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting
embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling
or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our creator, and
that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale."
This is not a passage out of a papal encyclical (though it could be),
or out of the playbook of said senators, but one uttered by the President
of the United States. More is to be done, no doubt, but this passage is
Often on the basis of proposals in the bio-ethics field, many writers
worry about radical changes in human genes, bodily form, life span, eliminating
sexual reproduction, and other areas that suggest the whole culture is
in decline. Culture wars, they are called. It is the function of a President
to speak of what we ought to be, not naively, but still with the awareness
that many of the problems that we encounter are self-chosen. We can turn
off from wrong paths. "America is a great force for freedom and prosperity.
Yet our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we
are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be compassionate, decent,
hopeful society." This is the sentence the New York Timeswhich
had chosen oil for its front-page summary of the addresscited on
the 20th page with the text. But it is a powerful sentence,
one that again mirrors the notion that a nation is not just about laws
and justice and productivity, but of compassion, decency, hope. As the
Pope also said in his encyclical, it does matter how we individually,
personally, treat one another.
After looking at the many problems, the President added, "we must
never give in to the belief that America is in decline or that our culture
is doomed to unravel. The American people know better than that. We have
proven the pessimists wrong before and we will do so again." The
words of encouragement are needed precisely when we realize the seriousness
of our situation, both within us and beyond our shores. "We have
entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite. We see
great changes in science and commerce that will influence all our lives."
The conflict is probably more than ideological, and the changes in scienceat
least some of themportend changes in our very being if we do not
understand what this being is and from whence it originated.
Finally, the President, after his reflections on domestic issues, briefly
returns to the theme of action and history. "We will renew the defining
moral commitments of this land." And also, "every great movement
of history comes to a point of choosing." These are not "pro-choice"
words, as we have come to know them. The word "choice" must
always have an objecta choosing of a what? In the context of the
life issues, "pro-choice" does not refer primarily to the will
but to what is chosen to do about some definite, concrete, individual
object. This is indeed one "point of choosing" of a great movement
of historythe movement to keep us alive, all of us, in what we are.
We do have "defining moral commitments."
The only time that the word "God" appears in this address, in
this land where we often sing "God bless America," is the last
sentence, "May God bless America." We probably have to realize
that God will bless not whatever we do, but what actions and choices are
for the good that He has given us in creation, in the good in othersincluding
the good, the real good, of those who have declared themselves our enemies.
The Presidents State of the Union Address is, pace the headlines,
not about "oil," but about the issues that define us, that make
us great. "Before history is written down in books, it is written
down in courage." And like "choice," courage must also
be directed to the right object about which we are to be, in this land,
courageous, brave, truthful, and free.
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Archives of IgnatiusInsight.com
articles by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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