Oct 16, 2019
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A Secular and Spiritual Examination of the Soul of America

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The Presidency is just not merely an administrative workplace. That is the least of it. It’s greater than an engineering job, environment friendly or inefficient. It’s pre-eminently a spot of ethical management. All our nice Presidents had been leaders of thought at occasions when sure historic concepts within the lifetime of the nation needed to be clarified.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1)

Historical past – which is all now we have to go on – suggests {that a} president’s vices and his virtues matter enormously, for politics is a human, not a scientific, endeavor. So, too, do the vices and virtues of the folks at massive, for management is the artwork of the potential, and chance is decided by whether or not generosity can overcome selfishness within the American soul.

Jon Meacham (2)

How does a historian converse concerning the ethical, political, and constitutional crises introduced on by the Trump administration with out discussing Trump till the final chapter? Jon Meacham does it by inspecting the battle of concern and hate versus hope and generosity from Lincoln till Lyndon Johnson. Presenting a battle inside and for the American soul, Meacham has written each a political and non secular basic supposed to calm nerves by displaying that earlier eras dealt efficiently with challenges like our personal.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Higher Angels is a selective take a look at battles over human equality on the whole, however particularly racism and immigration. Meacham didn’t write an in depth historical past of America from Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson. Somewhat, he recognized ethical and non secular battles that maintain recurring. He additionally didn’t seed the account with private interpretation as he relied on statements of historic figures. Meacham’s views are seen in his considered alternative of quotations. The pressure of those statements in clarifying present points is at all times stirring and sometimes inspiring.

Individuals frightened about harm to our system and values ought to learn Jon Meacham’s present to our sanity. His restraint in interpretation helps calm current anxieties with an underlying message of hope arising from earlier success in coping with recurring points.

Meacham’s non secular views should not seen, but there’s a outstanding non secular theme unifying a historical past centered on political points as challenges to deepest American values. Utilizing Lincoln’s time period, he seeks to determine examples of “our higher angels” together with counterexamples. Clearly, he favors human equality and sees that as the most effective of the American soul, but a darkish facet has continued to emerge all through our historical past.

Though not with out blemish, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson seem on the optimistic facet of the ledger. Beneficiant servings of W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr., clarify their significance in expressing human equality as a non secular precept. The flip facet is seen within the prevalence of concern in “regional revanchism” of Southern resistance to Reconstruction, the “Crimson Scare,” rise of the KKK within the 1920s, and Robert Welsh’s John Birch Society together with Joseph McCarthy within the 1950s.

The statements from representatives of the forces of sunshine and darkness are astonishing of their directness in laying out motivations of every facet. For instance, the Statue of Liberty impressed rival visions of America’s openness to determined peoples of the world. In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet that may be seen at present on the Statue of Liberty. Most of us know the ending, however right here is a part of the start:

Right here at our sea-washed, sundown gates shall stand

A mighty lady with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightening, and her title

Mom of Exiles. (3)

A counter message was expressed by Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s 1892 “The Unguarded Gates:”

Vast open and unguarded stand our gates,

And thru them presses a wild motley throng –…

O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it nicely

To go away the gates unguarded? (4)

Immigration points from the 1880s into the 1920s focused Southern Europeans on the east coast and Chinese language within the west. It was the much less white Southern Europeans that had been attacked by the KKK, together with Catholics and Negroes, throughout its resurgence within the 1920s. Talking to a KKK conference in Kansas Metropolis in 1924, Clifford Walker, Governor of Georgia, warned of “a darkened and a poisoned and a decadent nation” for future generations due to immigrants. “I’d construct a wall of metal… a wall as excessive as Heaven, in opposition to the admission of a single a kind of Southern Europeans who by no means thought the ideas or spoke the language of a democracy of their lives.” The tone and symbolism of these phrases are very modern. (5)

The rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy is particularly significant for the age of Trump. The e-book’s solely reference to Trump by title is in reference to Roy Cohn, the lawyer for McCarthy and mentor of Trump; but modern readers cannot keep away from considering of Trump because the character, motives, and failings of McCarthy are detailed. The explanation for the downfall of McCarthy, in keeping with Cohn, was lack of public curiosity within the appearing and salesmanship that fueled his use of media to stoke public concern. (6)

Meacham’s private views turn into extra direct in his conclusion but stay non-partisan and restrained. He mentions 5 optimistic tips for voter involvement to change an undesirable course of occasions. As a instructor of school freshmen, I attempt to emphasize an identical message to college students susceptible to depend on social media for information. It’s a onerous message to promote, together with the significance of voting in native and federal elections. Meacham’s recommendation is vital for younger and outdated residents at present.

Theology and faith turn into concerned within the battle for the American soul as a result of so many spiritual figures are concerned within the points. Though Meacham does not impose his non secular views, his alternative of passages to cite and talk about communicates a deeply non secular message.

These of us who agree with Meacham’s thought of the “higher angels” will discover consolation and encouragement within the non secular message of this e-book. Behind Jesus’s encouragement in Matthew 7:7 to ask, search, and knock lies a message of hope in persistent and optimistic motion. Such is the underlying function of Meacham’s examination of the soul of America.


(1) Quoted in Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Higher Angels (New York: Random Home, 2018), 12.

(2) Ibid., 258.

(3) Ibid., 118.

(4) Ibid., 117.

(5) Ibid., 120.

(6) Ibid., 202-203.

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