Rhetoric Without Action Is Just Noise

Last week, Hilary Sherratt wrote a compelling piece on President Obama’s State of the Union address. In it, she reminded us that rhetoric is important; it is, as she put it, “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.”

I like that idea. I’ve always been fascinated with rhetoric, particularly presidential speechmaking. I think, for instance, about John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights speech on June 11, 1963, in which he said “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

While this may be obvious to us today, it wasn’t at the time, and while JFK didn’t live to see the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed, his speech, that declaration of moral imperative, substantially moved the needle in its favor.

But I would caution against an unequivocal, unflinching reliance on rhetoric as the driving force behind political action. Particularly in our world of 24-hour news, a ravenous press, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and the oft-forgotten carrier pigeons, the meaning of words has diminished. The action itself is what matters and that is often unseen and unheard.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been long on words and short on action in recent years. A perfect example of this is the current/forthcoming debate on immigration reform. There has been lots of noise: some Republicans have warned their party of electoral doom should immigration reform fail, while others have screamed about the dangers of what they see as pandering to the immigrant community for votes.

Meanwhile, Democrats have a decision to make. Having won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election, Democrats realize they have a powerful voting bloc safely in their corner. Failure to pass immigration reform in the next year would allow them to continue to paint Republicans as anti-immigrant in the 2014 midterm election. Rhetoric (politics) or action (policy): which is more important?

In his State of the Union, President Obama stressed the importance of the obligations of citizenship and as Christians, this rings true. From a religious perspective, we all have a moral obligation to each other – to care for each other, to nurture each other, and to love each other. And from a political perspective, we all have a personal obligation to each other as members of a civil society.

But it is often difficult to maintain and truly embrace those obligations when we don’t see the same commitment from our political leaders. They talk of coming disaster and warn of the necessary sacrifices that our moral obligation requires, yet the obligation that they have to us, the voters, often seems lost in the poll-tested pabulum of political rhetoric.

Words matter. Words matter. President Obama’s reminder of our moral obligation to our fellow citizens may theoretically provide a foundation for policy action. But as our political leaders have failed to act, their rhetoric has become like white noise falling on deaf ears, and this is incredibly troubling.

I was talking to my step dad recently and he told me about a patient he came across in rounds during his Psych rotation. She asked him, “Is Washington still there?” He said yes, to which she responded, “good to hear.”

Currently sitting in downtown DC, I can assure everyone that Washington is still here. But sometimes I wonder if it will last – or if the emphasis on rhetoric over action and on politics over policy, will create a city so impotently ethereal as to lose all significance. It’s a scary thought and may very well be a misguided one.

But we should think about Jesus’ testimony; that it was always words accompanied by action. He gave sermons and he healed the sick. He taught his disciples and he fed the poor. It has to be both. So as we continue to analyze the goings-on of Washington, we should be careful not to become easily engrossed in the compelling rhetoric of our political leaders. Inspirations and admonitions can only go so far with a deficit of action.

-Chris Hartline graduated from Houghton College in 2012 with a degree in history and political science