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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Interpreting the American Religion

The American civil religion is the shared, collective faith that drives our politics.This public faith is expressed in propositions and behaviors. The public faith should not be identified with those expressions and behaviors though it can be discerned through them. And it needs to be carefully distinguished from the private realms of family and tribal culture and economy, e.g. the household religions.

When you take the words that most Americans say express the civil religion, much depends on their interpretation in any given time or place. As Hannah Arendt has taught: "the pursuit of happiness" meant originally "public happiness"--space where all can appear, express themselves, and be respected. A place where common good is sought over private profit. Those who make private wealth the indicator of happiness, who put economy over politics, and measure goodness by private virtue misunderstand those founding words. Personal happiness is achieved most fully in public happiness.

"Liberty" means the absence of tyranny, compulsion, or violence. But that is only the negative side of "freedom." Freedom is not the absence of limits, of small government, and of reduced regulations. Freedom is power. And power is not domination and control by force. Power is the ability to act in concert to shape our social environment. There is no freedom without limits; but those limits are set through the democratic process in which everyone's dignity is affirmed.

Justice means "right order." For some it means a hierarchy where the wealthiest, the most well born, the most physical, the most beautiful, the most celebrated have the most influence. But justice can also mean rule of law and law designed to recognize the potential of every person and the right of every person to have whatever needed to actualize the potential to be fully human and happy.

Another foundational principle is expressed as "we the people." This is the principle that we are all in this together, that even our creative individuality is determined by our participation in community, that our collective will takes precedence over our personal self interest. It is an affirmation of our responsibility to, with, and for each other.

Our faith in these principles, again not as actually achieved, not as fixed beliefs, but as aspirations which arise from our collective experience of our human potential, is what unites us. That faith in future possibility is what makes us American. Yes, we are condemned by our hypocrisy, by our selfish greed, by our small mindedness, and the cowardice that puts immediate gratification over public good, by winning personal battles when losing our national soul. But when we acknowledge our shortcomings, our hypocrisies, our lack of being exceptional, and yet go on persuing our disappointed aspirations, then we are most exceptional.

Those, who most vehemently profess American exceptualism as we are have been, are the ones who most deny American exceptualism for who we might be. The faith that unites us is not expressions of being better than others, not accomplishments and claims of being superior. It is our drive to do and be better, to actually take responsibility for achieving freedom, justice, and happiness for all.

Next: in defense of political correctness and identity politics.