S. Joseph Scott
Special for News Talk Florida
Americans witnessed a historic moment Tuesday, February 4, 2020 at the State of the Union address. It was reality TV politics at its lowest ebb. Traditions dating back to the start of our Republic were disregarded in a display of childish rancor. The speaker of the house could not bring herself to follow protocol and call it a “high privilege and distinct honor” to introduce the President. The President proceeded to withhold the handshake owed the speaker upon delivering to her a copy of his speech. All of this took place before the President uttered his first word.
The speaker then continued to pantomime the president from her perch behind him in what was reminiscent of Chevy Chase mocking guests on SNL’s Weekend Update. As for the President; he used his opportunity laden with recognitions, awards, surprise homecomings, to create what has rightly been described as a daytime talk show spectacle. The crescendo came when the speaker stood after the address and shredded the text openly for all to see. As one observer put it, “if Trump made the State of the Union look like Oprah, then Pelosi made it look like Jerry Springer.”
Contrast this side show with another high moment in our national history when, to understate it profoundly, tensions between parties were high. I have in mind the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, ending the civil war. In making arrangements for the meeting, the two generals exchanged letters signed “very respectfully, your obedient servant.” Grant took every precaution to avoid the appearance of celebration in victory. One reporter described his demeanor as, “that of a Sphinx.” Every effort was made to avoid dishonoring his defeated foe. When asked after the meeting what was uppermost in his mind at this historic moment Grant replied, “my dirty boots and wearing no sword.” Grant came to the meeting straight from the battlefield, unable to change his soiled uniform prior to the encounter. Lee wore his uniform impeccably, Grant feared Lee would perceive his haggard appearance as disrespectful. Both men had one concern uppermost in their minds which Lee expressed when asked if the hostilities should continue; “We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” The nation, not personal pride of reputation, was at the forefront of concern for both men. April 9, 1865 was a display of profound mutual respect in the face of the deepest imaginable hostility.
What accounts for the difference between February 4, 2020 and April 9, 1865? One contributing factor is the loss of respect for authority vested in institutions and offices. Lee and Grant understood themselves to be representative figures, not simply private individuals settling scores with each other. They both had a high sense of the national significance of their respective actions. Both believed their authority was in the office they occupied, not vested in their individual personalities. Lee and Grant believed in a God who created the world with institutions and offices endowed with divine authority. They knew and believed what the New Testament teaches, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). The office, regardless of the one who occupied it, demanded respect because it was a given in the order of creation. Their ability to show honor, and even deference to one another, was a reflection of their appreciation of the office occupied by the other. Personal animosity was irrelevant. They each occupied a sacred role and sought to fulfill its obligations.
We are witnesses to the total collapse of authority, beginning with our disregard for God’s, and working its way down into our political life. It is often said that “politics is downstream from culture.” That is what was on display February 4, 2020. In our day, politics is simply a stage for individual power struggles reduced to middle school level; the bully and the “oh yea, take that” response. No sense of propriety, dignity, office. We once had a shared sense of the organic union of the republic. Like a living organism every part was vital to the welfare of the whole. Today, it is more like marbles in a bag. Individuals clash, self-interest dominates, our culture fragments. All of this is downstream from a large-scale rejection of God’s authority as creator and redeemer of humanity.
Neither the speaker, nor the President showed respect for the office they or the other occupied. The road back from the politics of petty individualism, is a return to recognizing God-created authority structures. That begins with personal repentance from our rejection of God’s authority over our lives. Confessing rebellion as a primal sin, leading to faith in the God of all mercy whose Son purchased rebel humanity in his death, has profound social implications. Downstream from humility in faith before a merciful God, is a politics of mutual deference even where there are profound differences of opinion.
S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.