During his presidential campaign, Joseph Biden often spoke of the election in terms of a fight for the soul of America. During the Democratic National Convention, Biden said, “This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winniang the heart and, yes, the soul of America.” It was striking to hear a presidential candidate talk in such ways about an election. It was reminiscent of past presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy who understood the broader spiritual significance of their presidencies. These leaders understood that seminal moments require more than political leadership, more than politics as usual. It requires moral leadership, something he is attempting to provide. In an October NY Times article, Elizabeth Dias noted, “From the start, his campaign message has been one of broader morality, versus specific policy or ideology,” also quoting presidential historian Jon Meacham who said, “When Mr. Biden says this is a battle for the soul of the nation, he is not using it religiously but as a synonym for character.”
I agreed with him, and that was one of the many reasons I cast my vote for Biden-Harris last November. Four more years of a Donald Trump presidency would have been disastrous for the country. However, with his defeat, the fight for the soul of America is far from over. The truth is, America was losing its soul years before Donald Trump became president. He only exploited divisions unleashed by an economy that did not work for everyone and the underbelly of racism set off by the continual browning of America and eight years of an African American in the White House. Had America done important soul-work from 2000-2016, Donald Trump may not have ever been president and America would be a different country than it is now. No doubt America is in crisis, but it cannot all be blamed on Trump. The problems run deeper. Biden’s insistence that we are in a fight for the soul of America sought to draw attention to America’s moral character and implicitly suggested a very real possibility that America was in danger of losing its soul.
Losing Your Soul
The language of losing one’s soul comes from the Bible. In fact, Jesus was the one to talk about this in Gospels such as Mark and Luke where he asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul” (KJV “lose his own soul” – Mark 8:36). I grew up in church hearing this verse quoted and being told that it meant going to hell. What is interesting in the passage is that Jesus is not talking about dying and going to hell. He is talking about how we live. Losing your soul happens in life. In both Mark and Luke, this warning is given while Jesus issued one of his calls to discipleship, a call that requires self-denial and cross-bearing, which is sacrificial service, and following his way. His call to discipleship is a life that ultimately seeks to honor God and help others, not oneself. Denying this call and life path to “save” one’s life – have life one’s own way- will prove disastrous. Such a one will gain “the world” but ultimately lose the most important thing, themselves. More importantly, both the call and the warning were given to all who sought to follow him. In other words, Jesus is not thinking in individualistic terms but of the world as his work, universal in scope.
I like to think of the soul as who we are at our core and the place in which we struggle to be the best of ourselves. This suggests that losing your soul means, on an individual level, losing touch with who you are ultimately meant to be and losing the struggle to be your best self. On the broader level, it is a community that loses touch with who we are meant to be and our struggle to be our best selves. You see, Jesus’s warning here actually has deeper implications than the fear of hell. People can lose their soul here and now, choosing the easy and selfish path, choosing to be less than their best selves.
I think this principle has communal and even national implications because we live in communities and are affected by the actions of others. We have all seen people lost to anger, resentment, or hate who unleash pain and suffering onto those around them. Sadly, we are seeing it entirely too much these days and with an intensity and fervor that brings this language to mind. Darker parts of America’s soul are being exposed, and we are losing the struggle to be our best selves as a nation. Joe Biden saw this back in 2017 with the tragic events surrounding the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and drew on this language to interpret the moment in which we find ourselves. Republican Senator Ben Sasse saw it in 2018 and wrote the book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal. America was in a fight for its soul, for its best self, as its worst parts continue to assert itself on our national life.
Some may retort, “When did America ever have a soul?” This is a reasonable question given our troubling history of slavery and genocide. Today seems like the inevitable result of a path taken years ago, but if we go back to the text in Mark, the question ,“Did America ever have a soul” is wrong. Losing your soul is choosing a lesser path and losing the struggle to be your best self. When understood in this manner, America has always struggled with its soul. Movements in history like abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and today’s Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements are evidence of a nation that is imperfect but struggling to be better. But today, we are losing ground in the struggle, and there is an embrace of the worst of ourselves that has gained a foothold in this nation.
The Soul of America is in Trouble
America is in crisis. We have seen a lot in 2020 and 2021 – a global pandemic, record unemployment, protests over police brutality, riots in multiple cities, and the attack on the capitol building by U.S. citizens at the beckon of the outgoing president. America is being exposed in troubling ways laid out in the graphic below.
When we peel the layer back and look closer, we see a more troubling picture of the nature of the American crisis. There is a stubborn refusal to right the wrongs of the past and present around issues of race, political dysfunction in Washington that is more beholden to corporate interests than the people, and a hyper-partisan “tribalistic” two party system that is tearing the country apart. There are also gross economic inequities and poverty that affect millions of lives. Then, there is persistent violence at every level of human and social interaction including domestic violence, rape, and mass shootings. In the face of such big and complex social problems, the empty quest for materialism and pleasure seeks to fill or give meaning to the rampant nihilism we have unleashed on ourselves and each other. All of this is happening amidst devastating loss of life. For over a year, major news networks tracked the number of Americans contracting and dying from this novel coronavirus. The numbers are staggering. Over 561,000 Americans have died from this coronavirus – more than the deaths from both WW1 and WW2.
Daily we witness the spectacle of rampant cynicism, violence, discord, neglect for vulnerable members of society, profound moral confusion, and a kind of irrationality that is utterly baffling, like those who believe the pandemic was some hoax or those latching on to conspiracy theories. Others see it too. In the Atlantic article, “A Nation Coming Apart,” Jeffrey Goldberg worried that the ties that bind us are fraying at an alarming speed, that we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible. Dan Zak’s Washington Post article, “The Collapse of American Exceptionalism,” quoted Elizabeth Tandy Schermer, an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, who said we “can no longer pretend that ‘the American century’ isn’t over.”
She views “the years since 1968 as a cycle of recessions and widening inequality, debt and disenfranchisement that is only now becoming apparent to broader America – white America, moneyed America – because the pandemic and social media have made it impossible to ignore. Institutions have been deteriorating and failing us for generations, she says, but we rigged work arounds with our own social network and mutual-aid groups. We made do. Then the pandemic scattered us, isolated us, exposed us for what we really are.”
These are samples of a robust national conversation that include other articles such as Joel Kotkin’s, “America’s Drift toward Feudalism,” and the controversial Rolling Stone article titled, “The Unraveling of America,” about a country losing its soul. In a sense, the pandemic both exposed and exacerbated weak points in our systems and citizenry that will take years to address.
As a final point, there is the problem of what passes as leadership today in America. We have too many political and community leaders who cannot see “the forest for the trees,” meaning they are so preoccupied with the individual parts – singular social issue, social group, or partisan loyalty – that they neglect the whole – the health and well-being of the nation. We have powerful leaders whose thinking and actions hurt the country but benefit their group, and they believe this is acceptable. That is only part of the problems we face. Our preoccupation on only parts and blindness of the whole is why we cannot see the root of the growth of social dysfunction that is stifling our nation. I want to draw our attention to what I believe to be the core because I suspect this broader crisis is a second and equally important reason Biden invoked the language of America in a fight for its soul.
The Heart of Our National Crisis
While attention needs to be given to the political system, weakening and ineffective infrastructure, and poverty, they do not get at the heart of our crisis. Our first core problem is that we have placed hatred at the center of society. Hate is the undercurrent and common thread animating the American crisis. It guides how we think about and interact with others (remember the Ben Sasse book, Them). For example, there is a form of hate that I call “othering” that manifests itself in both the resurgence of the old white-black racism and neo-racism directed against other people of color and immigrant communities. Othering categorizes non-white people to justify indifference, mistreatment, and violence. Othering extends beyond racism and xenophobia. Its social currency also allows us to use partisan and class labels as excuses to mask indifference, exclusion, and discrimination. In other words, we all use othering to justify ill treatment of each other in both our personal relationships and policies we support. Yoni Appelbaum’s article “How America Ends” in The Atlantic gave a compelling example of what I’d call “partisan othering.”
“Recent research by political scientists at Vanderbilt University and other institutions has found both Republicans and Democrats are distressingly willing to dehumanize members of the opposite party. “Partisans are willing to explicitly state that members of the opposing party are like animals that they lack essential human traits,” the researchers found…This is a dangerous line to cross. As the researchers write,” Dehumanization may loosen the moral restraints that would normally prevent us from harming another human being” (December 2019, 46).
These researchers are correct. The way we think and talk about people in the opposite party is dangerous. Today, hate has created a crisis in public morality, indicative of a nation losing its soul. We cannot fix our crumbling infrastructure, bridge the partisan divide, correct systemic racism, and address poverty until we come to grips with hate.
Why do I believe that we have centralized hate in society? First, as a general principle, people are not going to admit they hate other people or are thinking and acting in hateful ways. This does not, however, mean such a claim is true. Actions always speak louder than words. A person or group’s actions can contradict the claim not to hate or to participate in group hate toward others. Second, what often happens is that hate disguises itself or is called something else. This then allows people to participate in hate without feeling they have compromised a belief system of some kind. This is how hate can be both pervasive and widespread in a country with deep religious roots. This is exactly what is happening all over this country.
Here I turn to one of the most influential books in African American history. Howard Thurman’s classic Jesus and the Disinherited (1953) shows how hatred can serve a social function, but ultimately is destructive. In the chapter exploring hate, he spoke of a “socially-acceptable” form of hate employed during times of war. He witnessed hatred becoming acceptable and respectable during times of war as a country mobilizes support to destroy an enemy. Thurman says, it is very simple; in times of war “hatred could be brought out into the open, given a formal dignity and a place of respectability.” Instead of hate, we may call it patriotism and allow it to provide moral cover for one nation or nations to peddle in hateful speech and provide political and militaristic reasons others must be killed. After all, they are the enemy. Thurman knew that such cover was important in a nation that claims to be Christian because hate is a sin. He adds, “Hatred is something of which to be ashamed unless it provides for us a form of validation and prestige. If either is provided, then the immoral or amoral character of hatred is transformed into positive violence” (Thurman, 75). It is the label enemy that provides the validation that fuels hostile thoughts and feelings. Then, in some cases, thoughts and feelings legitimate acts of violence, even killing. Again, we may call it patriotism but there is no escaping the web of hate.
Thurman also witnessed hatred being used in group relations and spoke about the dangers of African Americans embracing hate in the fight against racism. While his example focused on relations between black and white people, his analysis applies more broadly to all groups and specifically the belief that any group’s hatred is actually righteous. He found that hatred begins where there is “contact without fellowship” (Thurman 75). In other words, we are around others but do not associate with them or know them. While hatred begins where there is little contact, it is sustained by “bottled up resentment that is used to give people a basis for self-realization” and insists that the basis creates “the illusion of righteousness (Thurman 82). This is why we hear some African Americans say things like “I hate all police officers.” To them, it’s alright to hate the police because they are killing us. Or if a group is being ‘othered’ by those in power, hate can be a powerful defense mechanism for that group to channel and direct against those marginalizing them. In such a situation, hatred can feel necessary to self-worth.
There are two points I want to make here about Thurman’s analysis of hate. The first is the importance of giving attention to social and political causes we rally behind that do nothing more than provide moral cover for us to objectify, dehumanize, and hate other people. This cover, as sophisticated and important as we make it, illustrates how reasonably good people can participate in hate. Whether it is selective benevolence where kindness is reserved for those in his or her group or selective malevolence for those outside his or her group, it is easy to be snared in hate’s web and guilty of what may be Thurman’s most profound point when he said hate “makes [it] possible for an individual to be life-affirming and life-negating at one and the same time” (Thurman 85). This sounds like a lot of Americans today – life- affirming and life-negating, indicative of a country losing its soul.
My second point is a warning. Nothing positive, constructive, or creative comes from hate. For example, look at the condition of our infrastructure or how we responded to the pandemic. Discord cripples our vision and will to respond effectively to social challenges we face. Thurman’s conclusion about hate was threefold. First, he said that Jesus rejected hate. And so, it is ironic that hate has become so acceptable in a country claiming to be Christian and following the teachings of Jesus. The other two things he said was that hate destroys the core life of the hater and dries up the springs of creative thought. By placing it at the center of who we choose to be in this moment and our interactions with others, we are choosing a path with a destructive end because we lack creativity and collective will needed to address the complex problems we face today. Our energy will be consumed fighting one another, which is why Jesus wisely said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).
The second core problem at the heart of the American crisis is religious. Many Christian churches, organizations, and leaders are morally bankrupt and unable to bring the great teachings and ideas of religion to bear on our national life. What makes this crisis so acute is that our churches buttress so many families and educational institutions. When churches cannot provide moral support to the nation, it compounds the nature of the crisis we are in and leaves us lost. Faith communities of all kinds play a vital role in society that goes beyond matters of personal piety, teaching, and worship for its adherents. They should contribute to the broader good of society. Churches should draw on teachings in Scripture to remind the country that God is the creator of all humanity and not just Americans or people of one race, that God loves justice and mercy, calls us to live together in peace, and to love our neighbor. We must keep these ideas before the state at all times. In this respect, many, not all, Christian churches are failing.
The church in America has been here before during the centuries of African slavery and the Jim Crow era. In the previous era, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply troubled by the apathy and mixed witness of Christianity in a pivotal moment in history. In response to a statement eight clergymen issued in the newspaper criticizing Dr. King’s Birmingham campaign, he expressed disappointment in the church, something he would often do as the movement continued throughout the sixties.
“I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of the stained-glass windows…In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963).
I am also disappointed and weep over the shameful condition of many of our churches. Sadly, too many churches are silent in the face of widespread oppression and suffering. Too many sanction it, and we are almost hopelessly divided in this moment when moral clarity is desperately needed. Yes, we have been here before, and we are certainly here again. For example, some churches and leaders are so tangled and mangled up into partisan politics that they have lost a broader perspective of the nation as a whole and the role they must play in guiding it.
Not only did King express disappointment in the church, he also warned churches today about its relationship to the state in a sermon called, A Knock at Midnight, written and delivered in 1963.
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.”
There are too many churches and leaders who are nothing more than tools and blind worshippers of the state. Today there are too many churches that are nothing more than Democratic and or Republican social clubs. This is where we are today – churches with little moral and spiritual authority to guide a state that has lost its way. In its wake, there is profound moral confusion that is allowing our political and community leaders to continue to act in such a reckless and irresponsible manner.
This crisis of religion is twofold – churches have increasingly become the puppet of the state and not its conscience, and we have lost sight of our own imperfections and blindness as we work in the public square. There are two gifts in the Christian tradition: the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist that should ground us in the realization that we are ALWAYS imperfect. We strive to speak and give witness to truth but never do so perfectly. In fact, our best thoughts and actions are always tinged with self-interest and motives that are less than good. This means that our groups, organizations, philosophies, churches, even our criticisms of other groups are ALL imperfect. This realization should inspire humility and grace in the work we do in the world including taking a stand against injustice and speaking truth to power. Tasks like speaking truth to power must be grounded in the realization of our tendency to see things our way and sometimes to claim arrogantly that our way and God’s way are the exactly the same. The convicting and constraining work of the Spirit and the Eucharistic call to self-examination in relation to others should ward off the pride and arrogance we see commonplace today. Instead, too many Christian leaders are convinced that they are right about everything and that the greatest threat to the nation is always somebody else – “it’s them” always them. This is why we are choking on our own and each other’s arrogance. This obsession with being right and proving to others how wrong they are is blinding us to the ways – large and small – that we are participating in the dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart. Religious groups and leaders not only have to cut the puppet strings and find their pastoral and prophetic voice in a nation losing its soul, but they must also enter a season of self-reflection and self-examination, not other examination (remember Matthew 7:3-5). This season can open a door to a movement of repentance and healing that America desperately needs.
A Movement that Heals the Soul of America
Politics and public policy are both vital for the future of America, but politics cannot fix a nation with a broken soul. We can start by going back to Jesus’ call to discipleship that consists of denying self, self-sacrifice, and following him. This path seems like losing in life, but the irony is that it is the path to save life. This call, when applied to our social life, means living and working for causes that are bigger than you and benefit others. This path, I believe, can save America’s soul. Hate will only worsen our social predicament and hasten the complete loss of our nation’s soul unless we reimagine our public life together. The hard soul work the nation requires is daunting, and so moral leadership will be an absolute necessity. Yes, we need leaders with education, skill, and experience. We also need leaders to have the right kind of spirit and a mind that understands the moral nature of the moment we are in. The challenges before us and work required to build a nation where we all can thrive require a movement of heart and spirit.
Fortunately for us, we do not have to start from scratch. We have past leaders whose work can give meaning to the moment we are in. Dr. King is one of those leaders. I believe had America listened to him in the late sixties, we would not be where we are today in 2020 and 2021. It is time to do some listening. Though widely known as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement and champion of nonviolent direct action, his ideas on hate and national character are not given enough attention. For some reason, our leaders stopped talking about the importance of a nation’s character, which was a point King brought consistent attention to. If Dr. King could speak to America in 2021, I believe he would say that America needs a movement that repudiates hatred and must work to address its national character. These two things set us on a path to healing and the recovery of our national soul.
In one of his famous sermons based on Matthew 5:43-45, Dr. King opened with words that ring eerily true of our time,
“My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence” (Strength to Love 1963).
He asks both how and why we should love our enemies. His answers were simple yet profound. We love our enemies by developing and maintaining the capacity to forgive, by recognizing that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he (or she) is, and by not seeking to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding. Dr. King was not talking about an easy sentimentality but a moral strength that holds social chaos and violence at bay. This kind of love is the kind of fuel we need for a national anti-hate movement.
We do not talk much as a nation about forgiveness. We also like to make a point of disagreement or a thing we do not like about others the “be all end all” of who they are as a person. Social media is littered with examples of ways we choose to defeat and humiliate each other over social, economic, political, and many other issues. These examples are all why wreckage abounds in 2020 and 2021. America needs a movement that repudiates this undercurrent of hate. Please do not confuse this as a “we should all just come together” plea. Such calls often dismiss issues of injustice and profound human suffering. I am not calling for a dismissal of important differences and issues. I am, however, calling for us to be honest about the undercurrent of indifference and disgust fueling how we choose to address our differences. We must stop hating each other. We do not have to agree. Dissent and ideological variance are healthy for a democracy, but the thread of hate must be confronted and overcome.
Dr. King drew on the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament tradition because one of the biggest and most difficult ideas is the rule of neighbor love taught in places like Luke 10, 1 Corinthians 13, and 1 John 3. King understood that you cannot claim to follow Jesus while minimizing the moral weight of what he said about love. When I read the New Testament, I am challenged with a radical gospel that calls for us to love God and neighbor with the understanding that your neighbor is anyone and everyone. God’s vision is expansive and universal in scope and yet, in America, a nation that claims to be Christian, daily we traffic in hateful speech and actions, things that contradict the rule of neighbor love, and an incredibly challenging exhortation such as Titus 3:2 that says, “to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always gentle toward everyone.” Sadly, our churches provide moral cover for people by condoning, either by its silence or support, discord and contempt that has now grown out of control. Our ignorance of Jesus’ and King’s revolutionary ideas is why we do not see the undercurrent of hate eating away at our national soul. It is also why we continue to see people tearing at each other and our nation in the name of “good.” I think it is time we revisit these writings and ideas so we can reimagine our civic life before it is too late.
Along with a movement that repudiates hatred, we must have leaders like President Biden and others who call on us to address our national character. King said,
“Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to reestablish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening, we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments” (Where Do We Go from Here, 181, 83).
It was true in 1967-68 and true today. America must reestablish its moral character. It begins with the sober reminder that we are in this together. As divided as we are, we are citizens of one nation. This simple idea has been completely lost by so many in this moment, including our political and religious leaders. It continues by not allowing us not to let our wealth and technological sophistication delude ourselves into thinking we are not in crisis. King saw this about America when he mentioned the need “to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress.” Development and growth in a nation has both social and moral dimensions. Too often our focus is on the social. King knew this which was why he said America must bridge the great gulf between science and technology on one hand and public morality on the other. A nation must attend to its moral character, and it is very much a part of the work before us in 2021.
This is one of the powerful ideas Dr. King left us. He taught us to think of morality in terms of the kind of nation we have been and the kind of nation we can be. Often morality is thought of in personal terms, but greater attention is needed on the character of this nation. This is different from making a singular moral issue the be all, end all of a nation but casts a broader gaze that encompasses the whole of who we are and the places where improvement and growth are needed.
In the spirit of Dr. King, I am calling on all citizens to have honest conversations about the character of this nation and I hope these conversations lead to a movement of some kind. This movement will be a moral, not a religious, one in which all citizens have a part to play. We must find ways, despite our many differences, to inspire the best in each other, not the worst. We must broaden our struggle beyond the narrow confines of sectarianism by whatever name we call it. America is bigger than any one group and big enough for us all to live in peace. We must find a way to struggle to be better together than we are right now. This is the call I am issuing.
How will I deliver this message to the nation? As director of the Institute for Black Church Studies, a national educational and advocacy center based in Louisville, Kentucky, I am going to lead and facilitate conversations on our national character called, “The conversation every American needs to have in 2021” in cities and towns with leaders using this article. I hope these conversations will be the beginning of meaningful change. I am humbly asking Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky to issue a call for citizens to grapple with the character of our state. I also humbly ask our president, Joe Biden, to issue a call to restore the soul and character of the nation during a future state of the union address. These major calls to the state and nation can be followed by a series of townhall meetings carried by major news networks and a new round public service announcements where political, religious, and educational leaders teach principles of compassion, understanding, and humility including modeling how to ask for and forgive wrongs. I hope leaders write op-eds and organizations hold local panels exploring how we can improve our national character. I hope pastors devote a special sermon series to this topic and teach Bible studies that explore the instructions of Scripture and their bearing on our national character. Simple things like this could infuse heart into our civic discourse, encourage understanding and compassion, and reduce discord and violence. Together we can save the soul of America before it is too late.
Questions for Personal Reflection and Small Group Discussion
1. How would you characterize and describe the struggle we are facing in America?
2. Do you agree with President Biden that America is engaged in a struggle for its heart and soul? Why or why not?
3. In what ways was this article helpful to you? (I do not expect anyone to agree with any or all of what I wrote but rather to explore points that were instructive.)
4. What role should faith leaders play in addressing the character of our nation?
5. Is it too late for America to be better or do we have time to address our character as a nation?
6. Do you believe America has a problem with hate? Why or why not? Stated a different way, “What role is hatred playing in the divided states of America today?
7. Are you willing and in what ways can you encourage people in your circle of influence to be better?
Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and Research Professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville Kentucky.