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Does America have a Soul?

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

There’s a battle going on, that’s for sure, but is it for the “Soul of America” as Joe Biden has suggested? Let’s do what we can to get Biden elected. Let’s also make sure we know what we are fighting for. What we say will make a difference..

Biden appears to have gotten the idea of the American soul from Jon Meacham’s book:

The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels (2018).

So, what’s the soul anyway? One finds an early use of the metaphor in the Biblical “J” document: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”(Genesis 2:7)

According to this story, the first human (Adam) came from the soil (Adamah). Humans, in other words, are living creatures, and belong to the earth—a habitat. If there is one thing you could say about America is that it does not belong to the earth. We not only decimated the habitats of Indigenous People; we treated and continue to treat the earth as a commodity one can buy and sell; as real estate. There’s no soul here.

Ok, Biden probably was not thinking of America as a colonizing empire. Nor was Meacham. In his book, Meacham writes:

In terms of Western thought, then, the soul is generally accepted as a central and self-evident truth. . . What is the American soul? The dominant feature of that soul—the air we breathe, or to shift the metaphor, the controlling vision—is the belief, as Jefferson put in the Declaration, that all men are created equal (8-9).

One question, of course, is who is the “we” that breathes this air. Did it include Sally Hemings? Let’s not forget that when Jefferson wrote the Declaration, there were almost a half million enslaved Africans creating much of the wealth that enabled the colonies to even consider independence from England. (Some even argue that the likelihood that England would abolish slavery was a key factor in deciding for independence). Does anyone see something like a “soul” here?

Meacham calls the American soul a “belief.” Did Jefferson and other Anglo-Saxons really believe that all men were created equal? In any case, believing does not create a soul. Believing certainly did not create the social climate (the air we breathe) in the eighteenth century. That social climate was created by the Atlantic commerce between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

After reading Meacham’s book, one might think that the American soul refers to some core goodness that was damaged by our “lessor angles.” This may remind you of the story of the Garden of Eden. I don’t think this archetype fits with our history. There is no “goodness” to return to. That doesn’t mean that your or my ancestors were evil, although some were. It does mean that there is no “greatness” that we could “make again.” We do not have a past to return to, but a past to repair.

The language of an American soul will not get us where we need to go. The Declaration was not an expression of a belief or a truth. It was a “declaration” that declared “all men are created equal”. Martin Luther King Jr. had the right metaphor when he said that the Declaration was a promissory note. In his “I have a Dream” speech, King says:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We could see the Declaration, in other words, as a “speech act,” that created a promise; a promise that was made in a context of the devastation of the earth, the displacement and killing of Indigenous people, and the enslavement of Africans. It happened, in other words, in a climate of injustice that Northern and Southern states have continued through compromises to protect American prosperity. There is no soul here, but a promise that has not yet been kept.

Why does the promise remain unfulfilled? Because we have not changed our national climate from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice. We have certainly protested against injustices but fighting against injustice does not create a climate of justice. That requires the repair of social relations, the sharing of communal wealth, and the restoration of our shared habitat.

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