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A Catholic’s Take on Obama’s State of the Union Address

John Burger - published on 02/12/13

Catholics praise some of Obama's proposals, disagree with others

President Obama took up themes of the economy, immigration, education, same-sex “marriage” and gun control in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Throughout most of the hour-long speech, he was true to his vision of government being the answer for the problems of the country.

The economy and support for the middle class seemed to be the dominant theme, and the president argued that there are hopeful signs that the nation is on a sure path to recovery from the recession that gripped the United States when he gave his first State of the Union address four years ago.

“After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over six million new jobs,” he said before a joint session of Congress. “We buy more American cars than we have in five years and less foreign oil than we have in twenty. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before.”

But even if the “state of our union is stronger,” as the president insists, he believes there is still a need to create a sort of artificial universal equality, even at the expense of natural law principles.

“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country,” he declared at the beginning of the address, “the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love.”

That last phrase has become a mantra of President Obama’s since he announced last year that his views on same-sex relationships resembling marriage “have evolved.” With the Supreme Court due to hear two marriage-related cases in March, the president has used his bully pulpit much recently, including his Jan. 21 inaugural address, to force the idea that homosexuals ought to be allowed to “marry.”

Later in the speech, speaking of support for the military, he said his administration would “ensure equal treatment for all service members and equal benefits for their families, gay and straight.”

But he also spoke in support of traditional marriage, declaring that his administration will “work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples and do more to encourage fatherhood because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one.”

He also called for “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. He cited studies showing the benefits of early childhood education, both to the young people themselves and to society as a whole. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

And, after speaking of how America would support the efforts for liberty and democracy in other countries, he stated, “We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home.”

Anyone who may have expected him to launch into comments about the “first freedom” – religious liberty – after more than a year in which the Catholic Church has protested the Obama Administration’s health and human services mandate, could be forgiven for being surprised at hearing him speak instead of threats to Americans’ right to vote – particularly because some voters have had to stand in line at polling places for six or seven hours.

The president also seemed determined to continue a campaign of instilling class envy, asserting the “corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs” while “wages and incomes have barely budged.” As he did throughout his reelection campaign last year, Obama asserted that the “wealthiest 1 percent” of Americans ought to contribute more of their “fair share” in shouldering the tax burden and rejected the idea that spending cuts are the best way to reduce the national debt.

“We can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful,” he said. “Most Americans…understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity.”

Other issues he addressed included:

Immigration: The president called for stronger border security but also “establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.” He also said that the system needs to cut waiting periods for those trying to come here legally.

Research: Obama touted the scientific research that has been taking place in the United States to map the human genome, explain Alzheimer’s disease and “regenerate damaged organs.” Though he did not reference stem-cell research, his administration reversed the policies of the George W. Bush administration, which had forbidden federal funding of most human embryonic stem-cell research.

Minimum wage: The president called for the minimum wage to be raised to $9 an hour and tying the minimum wage to the cost of living.

Education: He advocated for more government regulation, such as requiring colleges and universities to keep their costs down if they want to receive federal aid.

Women in combat: Obama said that women in the military “have proven under fire that they are ready for combat.”

Gun violence: With many members of congress and guests wearing the green ribbons that have become a popular symbol commemorating the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December, the president urged new legislation to protect young people from “assault weapons.” He referred to “our most precious resource – our children” and said that most Americans support commonsense reform, including background checks, restrictions on the resale of weapons and the banning of high-capacity magazines.

Responding to the State of the Union address, Sam Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, noted that there seemed to be a “disjunct” between what Obama says and what he really believes.

“The overall theme of the address is that government is there to do stuff for you,” he said.  “He starts out making remarks about America being a country that values free enterprise and rewards individual initiative…and yet he offers proposals for government intervention after intervention after intervention,… and there’s not much there at all about freeing up the labor market or trying to do things like reducing America’s absurdly high level of corporate tax.”

Gregg suggested reading the speech in light of the principle of subsidiarity. Obama, he said, “basically seems to think the government, and specifically the federal government, should be intervening all over the place in the economy. He talks about the administration partnering with a certain number of communities throughout the U.S. You have to say, ‘Well, why does he think the federal government needs to be involved in these situations?’”

Obama said, for example, that his administration will “begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit [economically] towns in America to get these communities back on their feet.”

“Subsidiarity would suggest that surely one should be looking at other communities both in terms of local and state government,” said Gregg, “but also the actual communities themselves, if we’re serious about dealing with some of these problems.”

As for the focus on homosexual rights, Gregg said that “it’s very clear that he is adopting a rhetorical strategy of trying to normalize same-sex relationships. […] The Church is going to have to think very seriously in terms of how it addresses and critiques [this matter], because people do listen to what the president says about any number of issues. The Church needs think about how it can respond in positive ways, outlining the truth about what marriage is and is not, because clearly the president is going to keep pushing on this cultural issue.”

Anne Yoakam, a single mother in New York and editor of the political website The Daily Tuna, was not thrilled about the push for universal pre-school because she fears that eventually parents will be pushed into using government-run preschools.

“I would like to see there be more pre-schools, especially private ones and charter schools,” she said. But there are also ways parents can be more creative and collaborate with one another to set up their own “co-op nurseries,” assuring that their values are taught.

But Yoakam was not the only Catholic with the matter of education reform on her mind. Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, was present at the address as a guest of Speaker John Boehner. Boehner is a proponent of the Opportunity Scholarship Program for Washington, D.C., which allows students to attend a private, parochial or independent school of their choice within the nation’s capital. Many of these students attend schools affiliated with the Washington Archdiocese. The Cardinal praised the initiative, saying, “Children who reside in some of the neediest areas of our nation’s capital have the chance to receive a quality education through this highly successful program which is transforming the lives of so many young people in our community. In fact, this school year, there are 1,584 OSP Scholars attending private, parochial or independent elementary or high schools across the District. I am grateful to the Speaker for his continuing support of this successful program.”

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