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Sacred Civics

It helps us find meaning, community, and shared purpose—should we approach our civic life more like religion?

  • May 26, 2021
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  • Essay
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  • By Eric Liu

Humans are wired to seek belief and belonging. For billions of people, religion takes the form of church or mosque or temple. In 2016, our team at Citizen University launched Civic Saturdays, a regular gathering where people connect to explore how to live as powerful, responsible citizens: that is, how to practice American civic religion.  

I’ve been asked from time to time why we talk about Civic Saturdays as a civic analogue to a faith gathering. Why do we speak of civic religion, when some people are uncomfortable with any kind of religion? And what do we mean by that term, exactly? 

Civic religion is the set of beliefs, texts, practices, rituals, and responsibilities that shape our ideal of civic life—that is, our best lives as citizens, as political actors and authors of our community and country. It is not religion as God-centered worship. It is about our secular creed, deeds, and rituals of citizenship. It is the creed of values and norms stated at the founding of this nation and restated whenever our fragile republican experiment has teetered toward failure (as it does now). It is the record of deeds that have fitfully and unevenly brought those values to life. It is the rituals that memorialize those deeds and that make the deeds repeatable across the generations. 

That creed starts with the Declaration and the Constitution but it extends in every direction and dimension that evolution and inclusion have taken it. The proverbs of Poor Richard’s Almanac. The psalms of Walt Whitman. The parables of Zora Neale Hurston and the lamentations of Nina Simone. The homilies of George Bailey. 

American civic religion is every time we march for justice. Every time we sing for justice. Every time we lie down in a die-in at city hall to protest the death of our homeless neighbors. Every time we stand up at a town meeting with our member of Congress to show them who’s boss. Every time we pick ourselves up after we lose an election or a policy fight. Every time we reclaim our agency and rediscover our power through acts of widening the circle. And every time we recall those acts in a catechism of historical reckoning. 

I call this civic religion rather than just simple citizenship because our entire American experiment is an audacious statement of civic spirit and a continuous act of civic faith. We are nothing but promises on parchment and a willingness to keep things going. After their fateful actions, activists like John Lewis and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gordon Hirabayashi and Edith Windsor had no idea what would happen next, just as the signers of the original Declaration had no idea when they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor. They each took leaps of faith. 

Many who leapt were felled. Many who leapt were lynched. Many who leapt were deported. All who leapt leapt not alone but with others. 

Not just with thoughts and prayers but with lawyers and organizers. And in none of their cases was that faith redeemed in a clean, immediate way. And still we leap. It takes years, sometimes decades, and we fight and lose and win and fight again. 

We also believe that it’s necessary in the face of such unending uncertainty to provide a ritual structure for belief in the possibility of democracy. 

Why do we deliberately echo the elements of a faith gathering? Because that language, those forms, these rituals and habits all resonate on a deep level. We believe at Citizen University that all people yearn for the fellowship of neighbors and strangers. Isolation breeds despotism, as Tocqueville knew. When the soul of our country is threatened by hate, we invoke love. We kindle a connection to common purpose and a bigger story of us.  

In these darkest of days, in a time when politics is so fiercely polarized, when traditional religion fuels so much fundamentalist fanaticism, we want to appreciate anew the simple miracle of democratic citizenship. Look at the world. Self-government is a miracle. 

We have too much righteous certainty now, too little understanding. There are no infallible original meanings and no inerrant interpretations. There are only broken, irrational, half-blind humans.

This stuff matters not simply because it answers a universal and timeless yearning for shared purpose. It matters here because it locates us atomized, amnesiac Americans in the broad scheme of history and in a larger weave of morality. It matters because the norms and institutions of democracy are being corroded from within and without. 

A healthy American civic religion challenges us to live up to our creed, to reckon with the tensions and the hypocrisies, to do so with a knowledge of universal truths and the universality of human dignity, to be inclusive of every kind of person who is willing to abide by those truths and precepts, yet to maintain a sense of uncertainty about how best to do that. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” 

So how do we practice it so that its effects are truly beneficial? First, believe in tension. American civic life is a set of built-in tensions, of perpetual arguments that cannot and must not be resolved. Liberty and equality are in tension. Effective national government and strong local control are in tension. Pluribus and Unum, diversity and unity, are in tension. So are rights and responsibilities. Inhabit the tension. Know how to argue both sides. Know that elements of both are always necessary. Know that better arguments can bring us together. 

Second, believe in doubt. Lincoln’s phrase, “as God gives us to see the right,” is a statement of humility, echoed half a century later by Judge Learned Hand, who spoke of the spirit of liberty as “a spirit that is not too sure that it is right,” that seeks to understand the minds of others. We have too much righteous certainty now, too little understanding. There are no infallible original meanings and no inerrant interpretations. There are only broken, irrational, half-blind humans. The Founders are proof. And they asked not for the idolatry of future generations but for our skeptical commitment. 

Third, believe in gradations. Fundamentalism, whether of the left or right, is the greatest threat to American civic life today. Dismissing people as insufficiently woke or as fake conservatives—purging for purity—is both a cause and an effect of our contemporary tribalism. The writer Anand Giridharadas puts it powerfully: “Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?” We’ve got to make room. Otherwise, we silence and alienate too many bystanders. We stop too many journeys of mind-changing before they can start. And the only beneficiaries of that are Trumpian authoritarians, who depend on moral flattening, on this obliteration of a citizen’s capacity to discern shades of gray. 

Fourth, believe in coalition. The last national election and the special Senate elections in Georgia showed that a “coalition of the decent” is emerging. It cuts across race and region and party. When democracy is threatened by illiberal bigots at home and abroad, ideological litmus tests become secondary. Coalition is a necessity. 

Fifth and finally, believe in justice for all using methods from all. That means nurturing a spirit of mutuality and interdependence. It means combining your civic power with that of others to change the systems and structures of law and policy so that more people can flourish and thrive. 

I am not a practicing Christian. I am not a practicing Jew. I am not a practicing Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu. I am not a practicing atheist either. I am a practicing citizen of the United States. I know my own mind. I know what part I have inherited from being Chinese, what part 

I have inherited from being American, and what part I have inherited from being Chinese American. I know what I believe and why. I know how to put those beliefs into action. And I know how to amend those beliefs and actions, as the evidence of my eyes and yours gives me to see the right. 

All of us can do this, if we take seriously the opening words of the Constitution. And all of us must. 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

We do it together. Our Union is imperfect. Justice comes first. We do it for posterity. Imagine a society that operated on these principles. Imagine a country that lived by these ideals. We have the power to make such a miracle happen. It just takes practice. 

 

Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. He also directs the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program, and is a regular contributor to The Atlantic. He is the author of several books, including The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker; The Gardens of Democracy (co-authored with Nick Hanauer); You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen; and his most recent, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy 

This article ©2019 by Eric Liu. Excerpted from Become America by permission of Sasquatch Books.