The State of Our Union: To Be a Nation, We Need Shared Moral Understanding.
by Katelyn Walls
Two weeks ago, the nation sat down to watch the equivalent of what Mira founder Mikaela Ryan calls “the Super Bowl of politics,” the State of the Union address.
“The highlight of my week—well, my year, really—” a coworker shared in my Friday morning staff meeting, “was watching Republicans and Democrats alike chant ‘USA!’ during the State of the Union Address. I know they were chanting for different reasons. But seeing them all stand and cheer together at the same time was beautiful. I really needed that.”
Let’s ignore the small fact that each side was cheering to spite the other: the beauty of nearly all our elected officials standing together and chanting the name of our great country together was inspiring to many, myself included. But it underscored an even deeper reality: the United States of America stands to lose the very thing that makes it itself.
And only after this fleeting faux unity could I help but wonder: what has the state of our union truly become?
Robert Cover, in his forward to the 1982 Term of the Supreme Court, elucidated what he saw as a tragedy in the pluralistic, democratic republic in which he lived: competing communities within America—each with its own distinct narrative, values, and claim to the law—communities seeking not only to destroy the ideology of the other, but their way of life also.
Cover’s fear proved prescient: for all our talk of “tolerance” and “celebration” of difference, the state of discourse in American life has become such that any community with ideology outside one’s own community’s frame of reference is unpalatable—or worse, evil.
Perhaps the most insidious problem in American political discourse is the idea that the only possessor of moral goodness is the self or the self’s own community, with the so-called “other” being utterly devoid of all moral goodness or even upright intention. As such, critical questioning of one’s own community becomes rare, while the ‘demons’ outside become increasingly and utterly deserving of the harshest criticism and penalty—even unto death. Take, for example, the attempted massacre of Members of Congress while practicing for the Congressional Baseball game in 2017.
The problem, though, is not that American culture is devoid of morality; in fact, contrary to what we may like to believe, both mainline political parties in America make moral arguments for their causes and against their opponents.
The problem is we have arrived at a place in time where Americans have lost the ability to adjudicate between whose morality is the just and true one.
Alasdair MacIntyre, well known to ethicists and academicians for his seminal work, After Virtue, argues that the language of morality is in grave disorder. He states that “the language and the appearances of morality persist even though the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed.”
Our moral frameworks and vocabularies are fragmentary, such that politics becomes a mere “civil war carried on by other means”—each side fighting for what it takes is the morally upstanding and righteous cause. The news outlets we choose to watch and the media we opt to consume only further confirm our own biases.
Perhaps community requires something more than shared geographic proximity. Perhaps we no longer live in a society, but in a collection of individuals. And the way forward is uncertain when communities which possess shared common narratives continue to divide—perhaps threatening to reduce to the one, the individual—every man a law unto himself.
The state of our union needs a revival of citizenry capable of resisting political and communal fracture. As backwards as it may seem, that might first require learning how to argue with one another. As of now, politics consists of quips and soundbytes, the very definition of fragmented moral discourse. To have a robust argument, where both parties recognize the opposite’s humanity and common striving after the good, would be a moral accomplishment.
Better yet, Americans would have to confront the reality that morality is complicated and contentious, but it is also absolute. When we miscalculate moral good, lives are threatened. While no one person or party has a monopoly on morality, each must seek after it virtuously—namely, in a manner than honors human beings who disagree.
In this strange new society, we must consider the ways in which we might re-develop the shared “goods and virtues” Aristotle argues is necessary for the genesis and continued existence of a nation.
At the State of the Union address, that shared good was the record-setting number of women elected to serve in our great government. Even if our elected officials stood for different reasons, like them, we might find in the middle of our arguments that we can still sometimes stand together.
Katelyn Walls is a chronic lipstick user, an ex-NCAA athlete, and a connoisseur of all things Chick-fil-a. After earning a dual degree in literature and Christian thought at Union University, she went on to complete a graduate program in religion and ethics at Yale University. She currently loves living and working in Washington, D.C. as a federal contractor at the intersection of faith and healthcare, and is ever missing her family, friends, and the sunsets in her hometown of Jackson, TN.