The Way We are Made: Reflections on President Obama's State of the Union Address

Each Wednesday, IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT features analysis of a news story from the week.

“We are citizens.” The final paragraph of President Obama’s speech opened with this simple, declarative statement. It followed a policy-heavy and reform-heavy speech: ranging from climate change to gun control to education and beyond. It followed calls to vote and pass comprehensive immigration policy, tax reforms, and commitments to foreign policy efforts and improving high school education.

So, you might say, isn’t it a relief after all of those planning and policy-making paragraphs to have a bit of light rhetoric? To be reminded that we are all united, that we are all part of a larger whole?

Hilary, you might ask me – what makes that last paragraph meaningful? Isn’t it just a nice ending note?

I would tell you that I think it might be the most important part of the speech.

Rhetoric is more powerful than we often acknowledge. The words given at the State of the Union (SOTU) address serve, not just to frame the work ahead of Congress and the president for the next year, not just to give a status report on various initiatives. Rhetoric is what we remember. It is a call to generations before and after us. It is how we reaffirm our most basic assumptions about our political system. The rhetoric of the SOTU will be remembered long after President Obama’s line items are not – just as we remember the speeches of Kennedy, Lincoln and FDR far more than the specific initiatives they pursued.

President Obama ended his 2013 State of the Union address with this:

“We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

I want to notice three things with you about this paragraph. The first: he calls us to obligations. We are so accustomed to hearing about rights, about what we are owed, about the things we ought to have, either provided by the government or not prohibited by it. To hear instead that to be citizens is to accept obligations – and not just obligations to one another, but also obligations to the future generations: it puts our everyday thinking on its head for a moment. Our rights don’t come first in this paragraph; our responsibilities do. To be a citizen is to be obligated to civic life; to participation in government; to the common good.

Second: Our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others. Though I haven’t completely wrapped my mind around this idea, I do think it is important. The president reminds us that society is not a motley collection of individual wills, all clamoring for attention at each other’s expense. Instead, it is a community where our rights and privileges are bound up in those of our fellow members. We must row this boat together, in other words, or we will all certainly sink.

And finally, I was reminded in this final paragraph of a lesson I learned from a wise and transformative leader, Richard Twiss, who spoke at Gordon College not long ago for Beyond Colorblind – a focus week on diversity. When Richard gave the call to worship during one of the weekly chapel services, he talked about situating ourselves in a cycle of seven generations: the three before us, our own, and the three who come after us. He ended his call to worship with the Lakota greeting – “all my relatives.” This idea of being connected to the past and to the future – to be bound together and to have responsibilities for those who will come after us, has changed my thinking. We are citizens. To be citizens is to consider the needs of those we do not yet know. To be citizens is to be changed by such consideration: be in policy, in service, in how we seek justice, in how we talk. The president’s final paragraph alludes to this idea: because he lays out citizenship as a part of our identity linked to the future, linked, in fact, to that bigger cycle of generations.

The president has given us more than a list of hopeful congressional agenda items. He has reminded us of our public and community charge: to be citizens.

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at and tweets at @hilarysherratt