The Soul of America: A meditation on the spiritual foundation of the USA


Most countries have some kind of focal point on their flags. But the American flag does not. It has an off-center beauty made up of multiple stars and stripes, none emphasized more than the others. Our flag models our nation. America is not centered in ethnicity. Not united by language. Not bound together by one religion. Our founders united us by a universal human principle, rooted in Nature itself: the principle of the equality of humankind, expressed through democracy. No one of us can claim to lord it over the rest. All of us are humbled before the rule of law and our Constitution that enshrines it. The Constitution does not center our government on any one individual or office, but separates powers with checks and balances in humble recognition of our human propensity toward corruption. The universal spiritual principle of humility, expressed in religious and secular traditions, is woven seamlessly into the fabric of our nation and of our flag.

In this election season, let us pray that our candidates speak in the rhetoric of this spiritual humility – for a change.

America has a soul. Our nation’s heart is still burning to express our transcendent values through the structures of our society.

Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic after Communism, gave America a hint of what this new civic spirituality could be like, in his memorable address to a joint session of the US Congress in February of 1980. He was not a formally religious person, but he spoke from the depths of his soul. “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable… (what is required is) responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success—responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.”

In other words, humility is required if America – and the world – is to survive.

“In the beginning was the Word,” opens the gospel of John.

“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

This was the word of God divined by the prophet Isaiah. The ancients took this idea literally. Until the invention of the printing press, when printed words became ubiquitous, most people believed that words were not just random symbolic place-holders to refer to things, but were real entities that went forth in the world to act and deliver results.

Part of the disenchantment of Western civilization has been the loss of this palpable sense of power in the word. Essential to the re-enchantment of our civilization and its political life is holy awe for the potential energy packed in the language we speak and hear and write and read.

Let us re-enchant America with a spiritually-centered rhetoric that reconnects our souls with our political activism in a language that connects rather than separates, includes rather than excludes. Let us use language that opens doors and eyes to the world, rather than dividing insiders from outsiders. Let us use language that takes a stand but doesn’t suggest a last stand. Let us use language that leaves room for interpretation, moving through poetry and music. Let us employ faithful rhetoric that makes us hungry for love and justice, moving us to share the bread for the sake of a deeper love. And let us use this language to express the deep humility that moves the soul of America.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings

Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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