The Battle for America’s Soul

January 29, 2018

At times it seems we live on such a political and cultural emotional roller-coaster that we need to keep our seat belt securely fastened at all times. Maybe we should spend more time reflecting on the “ride” itself, rather than the proximate causes of our emotional stimulation. The past few months give us a good representative sample.

In mid-January, we had the heart-wrenching image of the deportation of an undocumented 39-year-old Latino man, Jorge Garcia, who has spent more than 30 years in the United States, paying taxes and working for many years to normalize his immigration status. Video crews took footage of Mr. Garcia hugging his tearful wife, 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son before the father boarded a plane to return to Mexico. The United States government sent him back to a nation he left at age ten because some Americans consider the landscaper a national security threat or they just want to score cheap political points. (Jorge Garcia And His Family Speak Out About His Deportation To Mexico | The View.) A few weeks earlier, Congress passed a tax bill, which according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, will seriously hurt the poorest working citizens of our nation, although you have to look pretty close to see the heartless elements contained in the legislation. The real pain to the more economically disadvantaged will kick into implementation between 2019 and 2027. Several weeks prior to the tax bill, the nation attended to the outcome of the Alabama election that put Doug Jones in the U.S. Senate. Jones beat the alleged serial child molester, Roy Moore, but only by 20,000 votes. And, of course, while all of this has been happening the #MeToMovement has provided a constant backdrop to every news cycle, the unending reports of powerful men systemically harassing, assaulting and/or degrading women (and also some men) in a variety of professions over decades.

If the airport video of the Garcia family, the details of the tax bill, the Senate race in Alabama, and the abuse of power that has belittled an entire gender doesn’t stir empathy, concern, and anger about the values that seem to now drive our society, we are all in need of a heart transplant. Or, maybe we need more esoteric surgery.

During the Alabama Senate race, many news outlets speculated about whether the election signaled the Republican Party’s loss of its metaphorical “soul.” It may seem a strange word for our more secular times. But, the United States did grow out of the soil of once almost universally embraced religious concepts, values, and principles, and the concept of soul belongs to that legacy. It is still part of our public lexicon, although people use it in different ways than the Founders would have used it. Originally, the notion of a “human soul,” relying on Greek philosophy and centuries of religious thinking, provided a densely meaningful concept that provided a kind of foundational background belief for the democratic principles and processes that set the U.S. in motion. The rights assigned to human dignity enshrined in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence (and international human rights law, for that matter) come, in part, from this ancient conceptual framework. But, if soul sounds too religious for our contemporary ears, Merriam Webster offers a more sanitized definition. Soul is the “animating principle, or actuating cause,” and the “moral and emotional nature of human beings.”

Whether you use the Merriam-Webster definition, or something more sophisticated and historically dense, more and more of us are recognizing that we stand on the precipice of losing something critical in our culture. Maybe “soul” captures the nuances of exactly what we are in danger of losing.

For several decades, some observers have tried to sound an alarm that the US has declining indicators in important virtues and values that are essential to a democratic way of life, such as character, honesty, integrity, compassion, ethics and basic decency. While the Grand Old Party (GOP) may show the most troubling patterns of “losing its soul” right now — the entire nation is demonstrating serious signs of peril. There are scores of data points for this, but a simple exercise demonstrates it. In the final hours of the Jones-Moore vote count, USA Today ran an editorial entitled, “Will Trump’s Lows Ever Hit Bottom?” The newspaper wrote the op-ed as a response to the president’s degrading comments about some observations about gender issues made by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. The troubling nature of our times and the extent of our erosion in our trust in each other is that people are asking the same question of leaders in virtually all sectors of our society. At times, it appears we are having a difficult time as a nation reaching the cellar of our own potential for narrow-mindedness, self-absorption with our own issues, the worst of tribalism, selfishness, and the entertainment of the lower angels of our nature at the expense of our higher.

From demonstrations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination to racial and ethnic prejudice; from the countless signs of increasingly inappropriate behaviors to proposed or enacted legislation that directly or indirectly increases human suffering, from society’s incremental abandonment of its responsibility for citizens to childish antics and peevish behaviors by supposed professionals, we are losing something fundamental and foundational. We are losing the core of who we have been and who we say we are. We are in danger of losing the soul of our nation. Religion clearly carries some of the blame, but it also provides part of the solution.

Going into the Jones-Moore election, considerable attention was given to religion, but only one part of it: the white Christian evangelical vote. In the end, it is disturbing that eight in ten evangelicals voted for Moore. No one was more disillusioned that Mark Galli, the editor-in-chief of the flagship evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. Galli believes this level of Christian support will have a disastrous effect on the evangelical brand, and also on the reputation of American Christianity. “No one will believe a word we (Christians) say, perhaps for a generation,” Galli said. “Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.” (The Biggest Loser in the Alabama Election | Christianity Today) Much of our secular-oriented media would agree, but their perspective and even Galli’s observations are only half the story.

Alabama is a state awash in religious values and motivation, often conflicting ones. According to the 2017 Pew Religious Landscape Study, 90% of the Alabama population considers religion an important force in their life, 84% attend religious services and pray regularly, and 50% identify religion a primary source of guidance on right and wrong. Most news outlets identified the black vote as making the decisive difference in the Jones victory. Journalists pivoted from the looking at the situation as a religiously defined one to an election determined by racial demographics. What has been missed by almost everyone is the deep religious values and motivation driving many Alabaman African-American voters to the polls, especially the decisive black female vote, with 98% choosing Jones. Most of these women are the spiritual bedrock of faith communities all over the state, just as they had been in the 1920s through the 1940s when they were raising children and forming young adults to believe in a different kind of America and a different kind of God than was preached in many of the churches of their era. In the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” for a different kind of nation, which launched the civil rights movement, African-American Christians helped their state avoid a national train wreck by bringing soul to the polls. The mainstream media and Galli is correct. Christians almost put a fatally flawed candidate like Moore in the U.S. Senate. But, what has been missed is that people of faith also tipped the scale so he did not. This election was a battle of soul.

For most of its history, Americans have reenergized the moral and actuating fiber of their “souls” through the thoughtful reflections, shared life of community, and strategic social activism flowing from the wisdom of ancient religious traditions, most notably Christianity. In the 1970s traditional spiritual sources for rejuvenating the soul fragmented into what Charles Taylor has called the “nova effect,” legitimizing many other spiritual sources and voices. Although traditionally privileged religious traditions, once again particularly Christianity, are still reeling from losing their position of influence, this fragmentation is a good thing for a democracy — it brings into broader focus the diversity of our understanding of and encounter with the depths of human meaning, longing, motivation, and purpose that is contained in practical side of a concept like soul. We can now think about soul not only through the lens of one tradition, but in a way more reflective of the real world and the real people living in it. The School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University has been aware of these cultural shifts for more than two decades, finding ways to help future religious and spiritual leaders remain distinctively grounded in their own historical tradition, while also contributing their imaginations to a nation attempting to find and understand its soul in the new context of many religious voices seeking to build a better common life. It is no easy task building an educational curriculum with this goal, although it clearly requires coursework and a student ethos that is ecumenical and interreligious, intergenerational and interdisciplinary, and oriented to action both within religious communities and the broader world.

The United States has undergone a Star Wars epic-like struggle to achieve and maintain its character and integrity in every generation. But, we will not ultimately eradicate the lower angels of our nature through decision-making in a voting booth, as the political parties would like us to believe, and especially not in rapidly decided legislation in Congress. It is going to take a re-engagement and embrace of “soul,” even though many of us aren’t exactly sure what that means anymore. As a society, we should heed the ancient warning of those who pursue wealth, fame and power, without thinking about the collateral costs: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose her or his soul?” (Mark 8:36)