When Joe Biden spoke of saving “America’s soul” on the campaign trail, I hoped it was a temporary lapse, but it seems I was wrong. He said it again in his State of the Union address. Nation-states do not have souls. Neither do empires. It’s a pretty wacky idea.
It appears that Biden got the words, if not the idea, from Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels (2018). I liked most of the book, but its assumption about our nation needs a critical analysis.
What is the American soul? The dominant feature of that soul—the air we breathe or to shift the metaphor the controlling vision--Is a belief in the proposition, as Jefferson put it in the declaration, that all men are created equal. It is therefore incumbent on us, from generation to generation, to create a sphere in which we can live, live freely, and pursue happiness to the best of our abilities. We cannot guarantee equal outcomes, but we must do all we can to ensure equal opportunities (8).
Well, It certainly stretches the imagination to believe that Jefferson ever breathed the breath that all men are created equal. Jefferson was the master of over 200 enslaved persons at Monticello. He was a settler on indigenous land. He was the father of the children of enslaved Black women. Could he breathe or would he more likely choke on the idea of human equality?
When my son and I visited Monticello a few years ago, we took the Sallie Henning tour. If there was something like a soul there, it was Black, not white. If we were to draw of map of the slave labor camps, also called plantations, before the Civil War, Monticello would be on the map.
So, it was somewhat of a surprise when I read the Black woman theologian, Kelly Brown Douglas’s book, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter (2021). There are a lot of good things about this book, especially her analysis of white supremacy as a “white gaze,” and how she faces the difficultly of restructuring our social worlds. I do not claim that I have freed myself from this gaze, but I question her apparent agreement with the idea of America’s soul.
Jefferson, considered the “father” of America's democracy, was the principal architect of the Declaration of Independence. As such, he projected a vision of the nation's soul. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson wrote, “that that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are Life Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. To be sure, despite this vision, the echoes of his Anglo-Saxon/ white chauvinism shone through the declaration as Jefferson referred to Native Americans as “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an indistinguishable destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions. Still the very enumeration of inalienable rights indicates a vision that transcends the “raced” assumptions behind the declaration itself (32-33).
It isn’t clear to me how a vision and an assumption could be so contrary, but that’s not the big problem. The big problem here is that “soul” does not belong to a vision or an assumption. It belongs to a person and a community, and a good soul would never belong to a community of the master class.
The declaration of inalienable rights may not have soul, but it is not nothing. Martin Luther King Jr. called it a “promissory note.” That seems right. Especially when we add the “promise” of the 14th Amendment. If that’s how we see it, and if broken promises harm all of us, then we should be eternally grateful for those citizens who invite us to repair them.
Let’s take a step back. People say things and People do things—words and deeds—and they always do them in a context that is either maintained or changed by what they say and do. The social context in 1776 was established by the 150 years of creating prosperity through enslaved labor and stolen land. As you probably know, the “1619 project” tells us a lot about this context. I would add to that story the story of white compromises that were made to protect American prosperity (Chapter 6 in A Climate of Justice). These white compromises silenced the voices that called on us to keep our promises to ourselves and to others. The white compromises also maintained a social climate of injustice.
Our climate of injustice exists as a social world, a context, in which our everyday conversations either maintain or change it. What we say and do makes a difference. It makes a difference if we say that our “nation” began as a slave holding/settler colony, or we say it has a vision that is the nation’s soul. If we want to create the conditions for dealing with our climate crisis, I think we had better stick with the truth.