Joe Biden, Donald Trump say they're fighting for America's soul, but what does that really mean?

It is a phrase that has been constantly invoked by Democratic and Republican leaders. It has become the clearest symbol of the mood of the country, and what people feel is at stake in November.

The New York Times October 18, 2020 17:04:35 IST
Joe Biden, Donald Trump say they're fighting for America's soul, but what does that really mean?

File image of two photos showing both US President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate on 29 September. AP

It is a phrase that has been constantly invoked by Democratic and Republican leaders. It has become the clearest symbol of the mood of the country, and what people feel is at stake in November. Everyone, it seems, is fighting for it.

“This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America,” Joe Biden said in August at the Democratic National Convention, not long after the phrase “battle for the soul of America” appeared at the top of his campaign website, right next to his name.

Picking up on this, a recent Trump campaign ad spliced videos of Democrats invoking “the soul” of America, followed by images of clashes between protesters and police and the words “Save America’s Soul,” with a request to text “SOUL” to make a campaign contribution.

That the election has become a referendum on the soul of the nation, suggests that in an increasingly secular country, voting has become a reflection of one’s individual morality — and that the outcome hinges in part on spiritual and philosophical questions that transcend politics: What, exactly, is the soul of the nation? What is the state of it? And what would it mean to save it?

The answers go beyond a campaign slogan, beyond politics and November, to the identity and future of the American experiment itself, especially now, with a pandemic that has wearied the country’s spirit.

“When I think of soul of the nation,” Joy Harjo, the US poet laureate and a Muscogee (Creek) Nation member, said, “I think of the process of becoming, and what it is we want to become. That is where it gets tricky, and that is where I think we have reached a stalemate right now. What do people want to become?”

Harjo said the country’s soul was “at a crucial point.”

“It is like everything is broken at once,” she said. “We are at a point of great wounding, where everyone is standing and looking within themselves and each other.”

In Carlsbad, California, Marlo Tucker, the state director for Concerned Women for America, has been meeting regularly to pray with a group of a dozen or so women about the future of the country. The group has been working with other conservative Christian women to register voters.

“It really comes down to what do you stand for, and what do you not stand for,” she said.

“I know this is a Christian nation, the Founding Fathers were influenced by the biblical values,” she said. “People are confused, they are influenced by this sensationalism, they are angry, they are frustrated. They are searching for hope again in government, they are searching for leaders who actually care for their problems.”

Framing an entire campaign explicitly around a moral imperative — with language so rooted in Christianity — has been a standard part of the Republican playbook for decades. But it is a more unusual move for Democrats, who typically attract a more religiously diverse coalition.

The soul, and the soul of the body politic, is an ancient philosophical and theological concept, one of the deepest ways humans have understood their individual identity, and their life together.

In biblical Hebrew the words translated as soul, nefesh and neshama, come from a root meaning “to breathe.” The Genesis story describes God breathing into the nostrils of man, making him human.

The meaning echoes through today, in a pandemic that attacks the respiratory system and in police violence against Black people crying out, “I can’t breathe.”

Homeric poets saw the soul as the thing humans risk in battle, or the thing that distinguishes life from death. Plato wrote of Socrates exploring the connection between the soul and the republic in creating the virtue of justice. For St. Augustine, who wrote “The City of God,” the city could be judged by what it loves.

The soul of the nation is “a very ancient trope that is revived when all sorts of cultural ideas are in flux,” Eric Gregory, professor of religion at Princeton University, said. “It reveals something about the current political conversation, in times of crisis and change, a corruption of sickness.”

Often we stress systems and institutions, he said, but in the Trump era there has been a return to ancient concepts about the welfare of the city, where politics is about right relationships. “In ancient politics the health of society had a lot to do with the virtue of the ruler,” Gregory said.

In the United States, the question of who could define the soul of the nation was fraught from the start, from the forced displacement of native people to the enslavement of Africans.

And the state of the soul of the nation has often been tied to the country’s oppression of Black people. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass fought for an “invincible abhorrence of the whole system of slaveholding” to be “fixed in the soul of the nation.” Lyndon B. Johnson said the country found its “soul of honor” on the fields of Gettysburg. When the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders formed what is now the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, they made their founding motto “to save the soul of America.”

This year President Donald Trump has positioned himself as the defender of a threatened Christian America under siege. “In America, we don’t turn to government to restore our souls, we put our faith in Almighty God,” he said at the Republican National Convention. Franklin Graham, one of his evangelical supporters, wrote last year that this age is “a battle for the soul of the nation,” as the original “moral and spiritual framework, which has held our nation together for 243 years, is now unraveling.”

For Biden, the soul of the nation came into focus after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago. “We have to show the world America is still a beacon of light,” he wrote at the time.

From the start, his campaign message has been one of broader morality, versus specific policy or ideology. When Biden says this is a battle for the soul of the nation, he is not using it religiously but as a synonym for character, said presidential historian Jon Meacham, who has spoken often with Biden about the soul.

“People hear it as light versus dark, service versus selfishness, Trump versus the rest of the world,” he said.

“My sense is, it is much less about an Elizabeth Warren 10-point plan, or a Bernie Sanders revolution than it is a restoration of a politics that is more familiar and not so agitating,” he said. Voters “just want somebody to run the damn thing with a modicum of efficiency and sanity.”

But even amid the lofty questions of the soul, voters have problems they want solved, and systems they want changed.

North of Boston, Andrew DeFranza, executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, an organisation that develops affordable housing, reflected on the disastrous impact of the coronavirus pandemic for many people, from essential workers to people with disabilities. The country’s soul is disoriented, adversarial and tired, he said.

“I don’t think Group A is going to beat Group B and everything is going to be fine,” he said of the election. “We are eager to see political leaders at every level regardless of party demonstrate concrete, actionable plans to address these issues of inequity around health and race, and to do so in a way that is concrete and has outcomes to which they can be accountable.”

In East Harlem, Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé leads First Spanish United Methodist Church, a congregation that serves many immigrants and Puerto Rican families.

“Does this country even have a soul?” she asked. “For me, I think the soul of this country has been lost for a long time.”

Though the current moment seems so dystopian, she said, it felt like a new spirit was emerging. She remembered the creation story in Genesis.

“From a religious standpoint, God created out of chaos. There wasn’t something that was existing before and was reformed,” she said. “When people talk about reforming police, there is no reforming police, there is an opportunity to abolish it and to create something new, from scratch.”

Lebrón Malavé sighed when she thought of Biden’s emphasis on restoring the soul with little concrete discussion of policies.

“People want to hear that there is something left to fight for because it is so hard for us to imagine what it would have to be like to dismantle the whole thing,” she said. “He is appealing to a particular mindset of people who were not taught to fathom a possibility of a new world outside of what we already know.”

For others, the soul is where it all begins.

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, not long after a police officer shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, leaving him paralyzed, a group of interfaith clergy held a prayer service in a parking lot, under a clear blue sky.

“The soul of Kenosha is at stake,” Patrick Roberts of First Baptist Church said to the gathering.

He shared his rare experience of being a Black pastor of a majority-white congregation. Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated hours in the country, he said, and healing the soul of the community would require more than simply a social program or a jobs program for the unemployed.

You would know the soul was healed, he said, when a person of any race could walk anywhere in Kenosha and feel safe.

Later, in an interview, he reflected on Biden’s campaign promise.

“We don’t know the policies he will come up with,” he said. “I think he is just talking on basic terms, getting back to terms of human decency, interaction that is respectable, regardless of your income, your ideology, your colour.”

“For me,” he said, “that is good enough.”

Elizabeth Dias  c.2020 The New York Times Company

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