We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In its opening sentences, the Constitution is clear what the Union is for, and in so far as we are going to discuss the State of the Union, we must do so within such a framework. The purpose of the Union is not to enshrine American power or to serve as a monument to its framers. The Constitution is not a philosophical text. The purpose of the Union is to serve as a body of the people, by the people and for the people. It must secure the blessings of Liberty. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Equal protection under the law. Equality of opportunity. Freedom from fear. And it must do so for their children and their children’s children.
And so if we are to discuss the State of the Union, we must discuss the State of the People and whether the Union has served them well. While it has become mandatory for presidents to stand in the House of Representatives and to declare that the “Union is Strong!” such a pronouncement can only be made when all of the People are strong. To know that, we must follow the moral imperative of the Constitution and ask whether we have met the measure of our highest morals.
In the Book of Matthew, after the end times, Jesus says to the assembled faithful, explaining the cause for their reward: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The faithful are confused because they do not remember doing these things for him. And he replies, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
If we are to judge the State of the Union, we must ask the moral question: How does the Union treat the least among us?
By any measure, there is more material wealth now than at any time in history. We are better equipped today than in any day, in any decade. Better equipped than any civilization to ensure that the millstone of poverty burdens as few people as possible. To put a meal in the belly of every child simply because it would make the world a better place. Simply because we can. And yet by the laws we set and the day-to-day choices we make, we show that we lack the moral character to make this choice.
Because despite the increase in the material wealth of our nation, as each year goes by, more and more of that wealth is found in the hands of very few. The 3 richest Americans have more wealth than the poorest 160 million. With that wealth comes power. And in their greed and our cowardice, we have found failure.
Today, as I sit here writing and you sit there reading, there are 12 million children who feel the pangs of hunger right now and do not know when or if they will ever be sated. Some of those children are orphans living on the street. Some of those children come from broken homes. But some of those children have parents who are just doing the best they can. Families with the kind of love that warms a room, but who live in homes where the cupboards are bare. Sometimes there is one parent or two, but maybe mom just got laid off from the car factory or dad works 100 hours a week because he just can’t find work that pays above minimum wage.
And it doesn’t help that there’s no grocery store nearby and so the only place to buy a loaf of bread is a gas station that charges too much. And the price of bread, the rent, health insurance. They’ve been going up every year like clockwork, but mom and dad can’t get a raise because the manager says they can’t afford it. But you go home and the news is filled with stories about how good life is for the people who already have money. Stock prices are going up, the rich suburb just got a fancy new school and corporate executives have never taken home a fatter paycheck.
How can it be that we have come to live in a country where the prosperity that we all create together only benefits a select few? People, who live on the right side of town, with the right last name, with the right connections? Because you cannot tell me that any entrepreneur, no matter how great, could have achieved anywhere else what they have in America. But they have to do it on our public roads, with employees educated in our public schools, protected by our public services.
It can be and it should be and it must be our purpose to ensure that every person, no matter how they got to where they are, has the chance to be as great as they can be. Only then can we say that we have promoted the general welfare.
And we can’t just do it for us. In order to say that we honor the founding compact of this nation, we must do so for those Americans who will inherit our creed. We must build a better world for our children lest we stand guilty of allowing our greed to hurt those we love the most. It is the responsibility of every American generation to leave a better life for our successors. To build better schools, to create better jobs, grow the economic pie, and retire knowing that we’ve paid it forward and will be taken care of.
But today we stand at a crossroads. For the first time in American history, the youngest adults are making less than their parents did when they were their age. Children aren’t getting the educations they deserve in schools where there’s just not enough money for a teacher who can instill a love of math or literature. The convenience of today’s shareholders and their retirement account balances has been allowed to outweigh the question of whether the air next to the train tracks, or the power plant, or the factory, is safe to breathe. Whether dad has to worry because if his daughter gets hurt playing soccer, which she loves, the resulting medical bills will drain her college fund.
We can no longer tolerate and we can no longer afford politics which allows this fall to eat next spring’s seed corn. Which allows the power and the greed of the few to completely outweigh the needs of the many. It fails our responsibility to our parents and our children, and it fails the promise the nation’s founders made when stating the Union’s purpose.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know for sure which policy choices are the right ones. But I know that unless We the People take a stand for ourselves, the Union will never be strong.
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