Sometimes one has to aim at what seems impossible in order to achieve what is possible and this is one of those times. We are in a battle for the soul of the country between competing visions of what our nation is all about and what will best serve to improve our common life together. We can only win that fight by a successful moral and political revolution—by rediscovering the most progressive ideals of America’s founding generation and building on the work of the many generations that have since sought to see those ideals more fully realized.
America’s founding generation established a relationship between the sacred and the secular that enabled civic freedom to expand and flourish. They founded a civil religion that has grown over the centuries to include people of diverse faiths—and of no particular faith—as equal citizens and as worthy members of the body politic. If we are to deal successfully with the dystopias that now confront us, as a people and as a world, that civil religion must be reinvigorated. We need a moral revolution in this country as well as a political one—another great American religious awakening—a revival of what is best in our diverse faith traditions that renews and deepens our relations to each other and builds a new politics and a new economics on that foundation.
America’s civil religion is under assault from religious nationalists on the “right” whose national self-worship is a form of idolatry and from radical secularists on the “left” for whom the concept of a moral order sustained by providence is allegedly a fiction that has no place in our politics. If you read no other political book this year, I urge you to read Philip Gorski’s,
American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present,
in which he eloquently makes the case that we must renew and reinvigorate the civil religion that our ancestors bequeathed us. Here is Gorski in his own words:
“The vital center does not purport to be a “third way” that “transcends” Left and Right. It is a political vocabulary that enables dialogue and debate between Left and Right. The point of reclaiming the vital center is not to end debate but to restart it. There is plenty of posturing in our public life right now but very little genuine engagement. There is lots of shouting but not much actual discussion… Religious nationalism is not worthy of our allegiance. There are reasonable forms of nationalism, but religious nationalism is not one of them. At its core, religious nationalism is just national self-worship. It is political idolatry dressed up as religious orthodoxy. Any sincere believer should reject it, remembering that the line between good and evil does not run between peoples or nations; it runs through them. Radical secularism is not worthy of our allegiance either. There are reasonable forms of secularism, too, but radical secularism is not one of them. At its core, radical secularism is little more than a misguided effort at cultural ownership, political illiberalism dressed up as liberal politics. Any serious liberal should reject it on the ground that liberal citizenship should not require that religious citizens shed their deepest beliefs before entering the public square. What liberal citizenship really requires is liberality—a spirit of ecumenism, generosity, and civic friendship.”
While it is important to listen to others, and to seek to respond to their ideas and beliefs—rather than their identities—it is also essential to recognize that the nation is in another period of political realignment. Just as the realignment of the 1930s paved the way for the “incremental progress” of the New Deal consensus for more than a generation and the rise of the American middle class, and the realignment of the 1980s paved the way for the “incremental regress” of the last generation with privileged treatment of the rich leading to the rise of the 1%, so we are now presented with a choice as to the future direction of the country. I believe that championing a program of social democratic reform for the country at this juncture is essential. Being afraid of what will provoke irritable power to new excesses is part of what got us into the mess we are in. For more than a generation, after Reagan's victory in 1980, Democrats engaged to a greater or lesser extent in appeasement as the goalposts shifted ever rightward toward the horizon. My sense is that the American people are hurting and want bold answers and dramatically different approaches to those that have been tried for decades and which have not worked. We want a return to first principles.
My top five priorities in my campaign (all discussed at greater length in earlier newsletters that are available on my webpage and linked to below) are:
Advancing Medicare for All, with a special emphasis on workforce and compensation structure issues to ensure that universal healthcare will be better quality healthcare for all (see:
Supporting massive infrastructure investment and the “decarbonization” of our economy through a Marshall Plan for America (see:
Promoting a foreign policy devoted to civility by which I mean concern for the common good, and respect for the rights and interests of others, and not merely diplomacy and good manners (see:
The polarization in our nation’s politics is not going to go away by seeking to compromise and find common ground with Trump and his enablers. It will go away by building a new solid majority consensus within which the “incremental progress” approach to doing things will again become viable. And building such a solid majority consensus requires the articulation of a bold long-term program of social democratic reforms for the country, the adoption of that program by candidates pledged to it nationally, the vetting of that program in town halls and before public criticism in general, and the electoral victory of the party pledged to that program in successive national elections. That is what I mean by the political revolution. It will require the mobilization of the American people and our greater involvement in politics not only in elections, but day to day.
The moral revolution is a deeper phenomenon. Toward the beginning of my campaign, I gave a speech on “America and the Kingdom”—a sort of secular sermon—to the 144-year-old Chicago Literary Club. The text is available on my webpage. In it, I argued that the promise of the American Revolution should be continually measured against, and revivified by, the promise of the Kingdom of God: “When I speak of the promise of the Kingdom, I am not speaking of repudiating modern dreams of equality and freedom, but rather of seeing them realized on a deeper level—the level at which love drives out fear. Recognition of the existence of such a deeper level does, however, inevitably reframe the meaning of both equality and freedom. In such a reframing, I would suggest that truly free societies are those in which people enjoy a set of media through which they are able to be open to each other, to love one another, without fear—in which they can realize themselves by giving themselves—and in which they are all self-governing with the equality of each human being founded not merely on identity as citizens under the law, but on the fact that each is infinitely precious as a child of God.”
For secular folk, and even for some atheists, I suggested, the basic issue could be seen as whether the United States will uphold the vision of the most progressive framers of the Constitution—that the American people as a whole are sovereign
an international moral and legal order that also guarantees other peoples, and ultimately every individual,
rights—or whether we will slip further back into something more like the Articles of Confederation and the vision that the states are sovereign and can bully those they consider inferior or, worse yet, into a new vision of a bullying and sovereign federal government in which that government is answerable not to the American people but to the whims of a demagogue or to what Bernie Sanders refers to as "a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists."
There is much work to be done and we are only at the beginning of the transformations that need to take place in our country and in our world—a country that we share as an incredible diversity of a people and a world that we share as an incredible diversity of peoples. E pluribus unum has been the motto of our country—out of many, one. It should be the motto of our world as well. Not so the world can become a single market serving the 1%, but so it can become a single place serving working people everywhere—serving all of humanity—and uniting peoples everywhere is service to the common good. Building a world that is just, prosperous, ecologically-sound and self-governed in every country by we the people. That is what I mean by the moral revolution: recognition that humanity is meant to live in sisterhood and brotherhood and the struggle to help make it so. It will require more from all of us than we think we are prepared to give.