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President Obama's Final State of the Union: Moving Forward Together in 2016 and Beyond

Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, reflects on the President's final State of the Union Address.

In his final State of the Union address last week, President Obama expressed a desire to bring more people together to move our country forward in 2016 and beyond. The President has never been more optimistic about the future of this country and the potential of the American people, and he lifted up a number of agenda items that have already united many people from across the religious spectrum or have the potential to do so. During the next year, the Administration will continue to work closely with a diverse set of religious communities to advance these goals.

The President discussed the need for more economic opportunity, especially for hardworking families who are struggling. In 2016, President Obama will continue his efforts to create such opportunity by continuing to expand early education, improve elementary and secondary education, call for free community college and make it easier to apply for student aid. After all, in today’s global economy, a high quality education is the key to securing the jobs of the future. This is not simply a matter of fairness -- it’s also about human dignity. "Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person,” Pope Francis has said. The President believes that, too.

The President also commended Speaker Ryan for his interest in tackling poverty and cited proposals like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers who don’t have children as one bipartisan way to move forward. Ideas like these were raised at a 2015 Georgetown University summit organized by Catholics and evangelicals, where President Obama and a diverse set of panelists came together to discuss the challenges of overcoming poverty. In the coming year, we will continue that conversation and the poverty-focused work of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The President noted that more than 190 countries came together last year in Paris to adopt the most ambitious climate change agreement in history, one that establishes a long-term, durable global framework to set the world on a course to reduce global greenhouse emissions. A wide range of religious bodies played a leading role in helping our country and others achieve this success, and they will continue to be instrumental in the implementation of this agreement.

A remarkable coalition of religious organizations has also come together in recent years on issues of criminal justice reform, a topic President Obama will continue to fight for in his last year in office. Like many faith and justice leaders, the President believes that making reforms in this area is not only smart -- it’s the right thing to do. Victims of crime certainly deserve justice. So do those who have paid their debts to society for crimes they have committed and now seek a fresh start and a fair chance. We have high hopes that progress can be made here as well in 2016.

And the President promised to do more to help people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse, and said we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS. This Administration has continued to address HIV globally by building on President George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and has issued and is now implementing the first-ever national strategy to end HIV/AIDS domestically. We have a similar opportunity today, President Obama noted, to eradicate malaria. These too are areas where people of faith and many others will work together in the years ahead.

The President also cautioned against voices who would “scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.” Thankfully, we are seeing leading members of both parties reject politics that targets people because of their faith. And just last month, a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu and Humanist leaders came to the White House to express support for the equal right of religious liberty for all people. These are just two of the many reasons we have to hope that we will meet current challenges by living up to our founding principles.

To be sure, faith communities set their own agendas, and as the President said, “a better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.” But when the President noted that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King believed “voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love” would have the final word, I suspect we could all say, “Amen.” There is plenty of room for us to come together, and we could not have a better reason to do so – the opportunity to change people’s lives for the better. Let’s seize this opportunity in 2016 and beyond.