When low-polling Joe Biden stands before Congress to make his first State of the Union Address as president of the United States, there may be more eyes and ears bent upon him than is typical for what is often an annual piece of puffy political showboating.
The fractures in our state of union are palpably and dramatically felt these days—from the domestic trouble of inflated prices at the pump and the supermarket, to pandemic-absurdity fatigue, to midterms poised to do an about-face, to the international tragedy and turmoil looming large with Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine. The collapse of the Soviet Union goes on and so does, God bless America, the state of the American union.
President Biden will certainly address these issues, while touting his purported successes of passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill and nominating a black woman to the Supreme Court. These are two campaign promises he has kept. But a glaring failure of his is the promise to get control over the Russian threat that has been growing over the decades, and over the past decade especially, with shells and skirmishes at the Ukrainian border a matter of course since 2o14.
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But what besides these cultural crises both at home and abroad can be expected from a man, a government, and a nation that has largely lost the sense of what is cultural, or at least, what keeps a culture healthy? As a Catholic president, Joe Biden ought to be pulling more pages out of Catholic social teaching if he really wants to stay true to the vow given his inaugural day to “save the soul of the nation.”
The state of the union cannot survive without adherence to the truth, and objective truth is a reality fast falling out of vogue in a society that places its mutable values on individual desire and the stupor of the “woke” worldview. Modern America has taken Robert Frost’s poetic quip about good fences making good neighbors and made it a mantra of relativist religion. And this goes far beyond the public posturing of soapboxing politicians to the problem of the relationship to truth—a connection growing more and more tenuous.
The truth can be a very inconvenient thing to a people who are descending into a new hedonism and governmental reliance. There can be no union when truth is not a central factor in our union. The polarization seen everywhere is a sign of that confusion. And it cannot be denied that the United States is becoming an enemy to the truth, which is far more terrifying than the hostility posed by Vladimir Putin, for only one of those antagonisms has eternal consequences.
While Putin’s actions are reprehensible, it must also be accepted that the situation that has been festering and fomenting in Russia and Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union is far from straightforward. And while aggression that is unprovoked toward a weaker neighbor is in every way condemnable, it is understandable for a nation to preemptively defend itself. (We can imagine what we would think if Russia was moving to set up missiles in Mexico or Canada—we’d be on the phone, too.)
But none of this can be reduced to a simple anti-Putin sentiment or even a simple anti-war platitude. Both may have some place in the American mind as Biden attempts to address the state of our union, but the problems that are causing us pain or anxiety run deeper than the pain and anxiety emanating from beleaguered Ukraine.
The ultimate problem that faces the state of our union is that the West is succumbing creepingly to a soft totalitarianism, as Rod Dreher calls it; becoming the very thing we look to with fear and trembling: nations that lurch and languish under tyrannical power, not unlike the Soviet communism that drove so many immigrants to the United States and Canada. But for all the growing similarities between the West and East super-powers, it is jarring to note the matters of conservative common sense that are losing their foothold here and are more enshrined there.
Putin may be responsible for the greatest international attack since World War II, and in so doing, committed a crime against culture, but it is striking how much more of a sense he seems to have for certain cornerstones of culture than our own president. This is not to praise Putin at this moment in history—far from it—but to acknowledge that there is sickness on both sides of this dispute, and ours may be the worse.
It is one thing to invade a nation that one has a claim to, whether rightly or wrongly, but it is another to support what is inhuman on a fundamental human level. The state of any union, of any country or any people, resides in that moral adherence that governs both the actions of nations and citizens, and it is here that the difference between Biden and Putin is worth noting or even speculating on.
Biden has said, for instance: “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time. There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights.” Besides being ridiculous, his comment is painful considering the basic human rights of the unborn, but it is a litmus of an overarching commitment to falsehood and popular psychosis that is the mantra of nearly every politician and public person who does not wish to be crucified by the woke powers that be: a Marxist movement of “equality” that has a stranglehold on our media, mentalities, and morals like a dystopian thought police.
When Putin threw down his gauntlet for long-disputed territory with unwarranted and wild military action, NATO and the rest of the civilized world can and should denounce it and issue sanctions before declaring war. But what exactly is the civilization these leaders and nations are standing to defend? Can civilization include LGBTQ rights? Or relativism? Transgenderism? Abortion on demand? Blind government subservience? Or any of the other progressive missions that are actually regressive in their denial of truth? Can any of these degradations be called civil or civilizing? Any civilized nation that espouses such falsehoods will only foster a state of disunion.
Putin has stood somewhat on the opposite side of several disintegrating issues of this kind. These excerpts from a speech he gave in Sochi some months ago are certainly unusual from a modern politician, even a conservative one:
The importance of a solid support in the sphere of morals, ethics and values is increasing dramatically in the modern fragile world… Some people in the West believe that an aggressive elimination of entire pages from their own history, “reverse discrimination” against the majority in the interests of a minority, and the demand to give up the traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender, they believe that all of these are the mileposts on the path towards social renewal… The fight for equality and against discrimination has turned into aggressive dogmatism bordering on absurdity, when the works of the great authors of the past—such as Shakespeare—are no longer taught at schools or universities, because their ideas are believed to be backward. The classics are declared backward and ignorant of the importance of gender or race… Anyone who dares mention that men and women actually exist, which is a biological fact, risk[s] being ostracized… Not to mention some truly monstrous things when children are taught from an early age that a boy can easily become a girl and vice versa… Calling a spade a spade, this verges on a crime against humanity, and it is being done in the name and under the banner of progress.
These are shocking statements from a world leader in 2022 because they are not untrue. These words, or their ilk, we will not hear from President Biden at the State of the Union Address. Unfortunately, a person must be exceedingly bold and even brash to speak such unmitigated truth these days—bold and brash enough to, in Putin’s case, disregard the sovereignty of a neighboring nation.
The president of the United States may be the so-called leader of the free world, but that world is changing as are those freedoms. And it is a travesty that we should hear such fundamental common sense spoken by one guilty of changing the course of history through violence.
Certainly, Vladimir Putin knows something about the state of our union, recognizing years of failed diplomacy, American interference in Russian-Ukrainian affairs, a weak president, botched and embarrassing military withdrawals, and economic vulnerability. The invasion of Ukraine is a kind of statement in and of itself of America’s place in the world, which bespeaks its own dissolute state of union. After all, we have a Catholic president with a policy priority to allow women to murder their children in their wombs. (Russia is no better in this category of categories.)
It is painful and frustrating to imagine that Vladimir Putin, despite his intolerable acts of war, might know a thing or two more about what makes a strong union in a state than our own president and our own people, even if he is a dangerous autocrat. It is a question to bear in my mind as our nation does whatever it can—through prudent diplomacy, strong sacrifice, and devout prayers—to bring resolution to this crisis, comporting itself as a global influence for the good.
But there can only be so much goodness when truth is relegated to place of unimportance in so many basic, existential ways. Truth is a measure of reality, and without truth, there is no reality. How can our united state be real, then, without truth? Without truth, the beauty of the common good is unattainable, and this is the Catholic principle our Catholic president has failed to take up. Joe Biden may say differently in tonight’s address, but Catholics must hold out for truth even as they hold on to it.
[Photo Credit: Peter Klaunzer – Pool/Keystone via Getty Images]