Harold Dean Trulear: Of, By, and For the Middle

While listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night, I received two phone calls. I found each call unsettling as I strained to hear each voice, humbled by circumstance, while still trying to grasp the terms, tone, and tenor of the president’s message. I hurried each call, pushed them to the side, so I could concentrate on the historic message before me.

The president spent the overwhelming majority of his address on the economy. He spoke to the heart of America, the heart of America’s concerns, and the heart of American resolve. He addressed us as middle-class Americans, people reeling from economic loss and instability, and heirs to a legacy of resiliency. As he spoke, I continued to hear the voices from the phone calls.

post-trulear-obamaOne young man called because I know his father, and his father told him I work with people coming home from prison and their families. He had been home less than 24 hours, found a place in a local shelter, and reached out for help. The other gentleman who called is a highway maintenance and construction worker who has not had steady work since 1997. A combination of battling addiction (he won, and has been sober now seven years, one day at a time) and insurance companies (who refuse to provide adequate assistance for the two on-the-job accidents which left him idled) has forced this once proud homeowner and union steward to a struggling subsistence lifestyle. Ironic how both calls came during an address that was not for them.

Second chances may be biblical, but they are not popular. The president said so last night, only he called them “bailouts.” When the second chances go to the poor, our common penchant to overlook the plight of the least of society exacerbates our dislike of the “root canal” of restoration. No, our primary economic interest is in the loss of the middle class, not the ongoing plight of those already marginalized by society.

There is hope. My two friends squeezed their way into the address when the president acknowledged that in the midst of the current economic crisis, “For those who had already known poverty, times got harder.” His call for investment in community colleges as well as “world-class education” could open doors for these two distressed voices whose letters will not be read in any presidential speech any time soon.

Those letters will continue to come from Elkhart, Indiana and Galesburg, Illinois. The stories told will continue to echo from Allentown, Pennsylvania and Elyria, Ohio, because the address was of the middle, by the middle and for the middle, and those who rule must seize the middle before they can seize the moment.

So the State of the Union address is really more about how a president, totally aware of our middlin’ identity, could communicate and connect, inspire and challenge a nation rightly perceiving the loss of the middle. The address reflects the ongoing rush to center of post-Reagan electoral politics. And the president is right: every day is Election Day.

In the address last night, the rush to center took a step forward—uh, wait a minute. When you are in the center, how can a step take you in any direction but left or right? Biblical religion does not deal in left, right, and center. It does not assess the horizontal plane. Rather, biblical religion assesses society in vertical terms: who’s up, who’s down, and who’s in between.

Much of society votes horizontal but thinks vertical. Our political process offers choices of left, right, and center, but our assessment of social reality often stands in the vertical middle between top and bottom, constantly looking up in aspiration to power and blaming down in eschewing policies that affect the least of these. The president is right: service, not ambition ought to be leadership’s aim. But ambition is the aim of the American middle, which can never settle for being anything less than number one. Why should leadership be any different?

The painful awareness that those on the margins, for whom Hebrew and Christian scriptures declare God’s special affinity, could only peek through the cracks of the address says something more about us than it does the president or the address itself. Just as my two friends interrupted my attempt to participate in a celebration of Middle America, they interrupt our efforts at stabilizing the middle by providing a persistent presence from below. They do not speak from right, center, or left. They speak from beneath. Biblical religion assesses the state of the union from the bottom up.

Harold Dean Trulear is associate professor of applied theology at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, DC.

  • Charles E. Lewis, Jr.

    Many of us born not long after the birth of the New Deal, grew up believing in a government that had saved us from the ravages of the Great Depression and had knitted several safety nets that would ensure our minimal wellbeing. Was saw in the wake of World War II an economy expanding with no end in sight and believed that good fortune was a matter of making good choices and hard work.

    Much has changed since then–wealth in America is no long generated by industry but by financial manipulations and it finds its way to a fortunate few at the top of the ladder.

    The middle class has been barely holding steady but making little progress for nearly four decades now. And the poor–they have all but been forgotten. They do not vote so why bother.

    I am one progressive who has pretty much given up on the government’s ability to help the poor. I believe it is in President Obama heart to help the less fortunate, but his head has not figure our how?

    Few of those billions of dollars we hear about going to poverty programs and strategies actually find their way into the hands of the poor. They have provided a living for many in the middle class doing research and running programs.

    I am convinced that the only institution that can really help the poor is the church under right-minded leadership. They alone can galvanize people and resources on the ground to bring relief. But from where will those resources come?

    Ultimately from private sources. The government must create an incentive for them to give by raining the limits on tax write-offs for charitable giving.

  • GRADINE BLANTON

    I could not have been more proud when Mr. Barack Obama became President Barack Obama. However, I must admit that I did have my reservations. My greatest fear was that those that did not support him in the Presidential election would not support him in his position as President. There are times when that fear is very real for me. The office of the President of the United States, while the most powerful office in the world, also has to be the most difficult. This is a man that took on a challenge that at times seems insurmountable. We are at war, the economy is tanking, people are losing their homes in vast numbers and unemployment is skyrocketing. It could not have been a worse time for the proudest moment in Black American history to occur.

    That said, there he stands; a man that is trying to pull our country back from the brink of ruin seemingly at times with his bare hands and then, there are those that appear that they would rather sell us ALL down the river than work with him to make things better. It makes me sad. But still I pray, I pray for his strength, his compassion and his enduring spirit. I believed at the time of his election that this was somehow a divine act. I still believe that. Those of us that know the Lord know that faith is powerful. We as a people, all people in this country have to stay strong and steady to weather the storm that surrounds us. If President Obama has been given the task to lead us with the Lords guidance from this really dark place, we have to help him. Our help will come through our prayers and our faith.

    Everybody wants something from this man. The rich, the poor, homosexuals, black people, white people, Hispanic people, the list could go on and on. He is not a magician, a snake oil salesman or a miracle worker. He is a MAN. The reality is that for any of us to get even a small piece of what we feel we want or deserve we have to pull together and support this President.

    My greatest fear is, that will not happen and in the end we all lose. May the Lord have mercy on our souls!