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Reviving the Moral Basis of Our Constitution
Cultivating civil discourse and greater mutual understanding across the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders visited Liberty University on September 14, 2015. I encourage you to watch the remarkable video of his visit. What Bernie did in that visit was to champion America’s civil religion—the unwritten moral consensus on which our liberties rest—and begin a dialogue about where the “left” and the “right” might work together on behalf of the common good. This is something that we all need to do much more often.

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. I recently presented my view of what we should be seeking in a speech to the 144-year-old Chicago Literary Club on “America and the Kingdom” that can be downloaded from my webpage here .

In purely secular language, the political fight that is now before us turns on the question of 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 under an international moral and legal order that also guarantees other peoples, and ultimately every individual, their rights—or whether we will slip further back into something more like the Articles of Confederation and the vision that the states are sovereign or, worse yet, into a new vision of a 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.”

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.” 

My commitment to pursue a politics informed by compassion and civility in no way diminishes the militancy of my commitment to work for social democracy. But successes in advancing a social democratic agenda will largely depend on how much organizational strength we, its advocates, can muster and, above all, on what the American electorate as a whole decides over a series of elections. The “gridlock” that has been a feature of American politics in recent years, and the swings of administration between “conservatives” and “liberals,” are rooted in divisions of opinion among the American people that will take time and effort—and dialogue and organization—to resolve into a new majority consensus. In the meanwhile, we need to find ways of embracing all of the members of this nation as fellow citizens and as fellow children of God. We need to restore generosity, honesty, and goodwill in our relations with each other as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. This does not mean starting with lukewarm compromises that satisfy no one, though compromise is an essential part of politics. It means starting with the recognition that many of our most important problems cannot be solved by politics. It requires cultivating a civility and a compassion that transcends politics, seeks to serve the common good, and recognizes that those we disagree with are capable of doing the same.

For my favorite jurist among the framers of our Constitution—the Pennsylvania lawyer James Wilson—international law, like the law of nature, was ultimately of divine origin. This law was important to all states, but particularly to a free state like the United States: “when I say that, in free states, the law of nations is the law of the people; I mean that, as the law of nature, in other words, as the will of nature’s God, it is indispensably binding upon the people, in whom the sovereign power resides; and who are, consequently, under the most sacred obligations to exercise that power, or to delegate it to such as will exercise it, in a manner agreeable to those rules and maxims, which the law of nature prescribes to every state, for the happiness of each, and for the happiness of all. How vast—how important—how interesting are these truths! They announce to a free people how exalted their rights; but at the same time, they announce to a free people how solemn their duties are.”

Here, I would like to offer exactly the same conclusion as I did for my last newsletter: For James Wilson, we—the American people—are “sovereigns without subjects.” This was—and is—a succinct way of stating the most basic ideal of the American Revolution. It took a civil war, and the civil rights movement, to even begin to make this true for African-Americans. It took the suffragists, and the women’s rights movement generally, to even begin to make this true for women. And it took the organization of trade unions, and the labor movement generally, to even begin to keep this true for working people—to prevent the power of the state being used on behalf of corporations to make subjects of workers. In our own day, it will take a moral and political revolution to keep the 1% from making subjects of all the rest of us and destroying the promise of the American Revolution. It’s time to take our country back.