Sometimes a speech can reveal important truths contrary to those the speaker hoped to convey. Joe Biden gave the country a perfect example with his “Soul of the Nation” speech on September 1 in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
Biden provided perhaps the clearest evidence yet of the deep spiritual crisis roiling our nation. We are mired in a struggle between two spiritual traditions: The biblically grounded American spirit of our founding and a contemporary wokeism grounded in utopian socialism.
The White House insisted the speech was not political. In a narrow sense, that denial may have been accurate. Souls are not fit subjects for politics. Nor are they fit subjects for economics or for science. The soul is not an empirically observable quantity. It has no observable existence apart from the body (though the converse is not true; bodies do exist after the soul has departed). The soul is the part of human existence that remains after all observable, testable, measurable components have been labeled and studied. The soul is inherently and quintessentially metaphysical. Discussions of the soul belong exclusively to the realm of spirituality.
National souls are no different. A “national soul” is a metaphysical concept explaining how and why different nations seem to exhibit different characteristics. The unique American soul explains the somewhat amorphous concept of “American exceptionalism.” It is also precisely what the woke—including Barack Obama and Joe Biden—seek to “transform” when they promise a national transformation.
Biden raised an important question: What can we say about the American national soul in today’s world?
The “national soul” concept is hardly new. God punished the unified global hubris at the Tower of Babel by dispersing mankind into multiple nations, each speaking a distinct language befitting its distinct national soul. In Jewish tradition, there were 70 such nations. The Israelites recognized their kinship with the Edomites (through Esau), Ammonites, and Moabites (through Lot) and refrained from conquering them on their way from the desert into the Holy Land. Still, their uncomfortable familial origins had consequences. Ammonites and Moabites were prohibited from converting to Judaism. Fortunately, the proscription did not apply to their women; King David’s great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabite.
The Amalekites were so irredeemably evil that they had to be eradicated. Worse, God issued the paradoxical commandment that we are never to forget to wipe out their memory. A seeming act of compassion to the Amalekite King Agag cost King Saul his crown. God would not forgive Saul for delaying Agag’s execution until dawn—giving him enough time to impregnate a maid and keep Amalekite evil alive in this world.
The Greeks, on the other hand, fare reasonably well (the Chanukah story notwithstanding) as beneficiaries of Noah’s blessing to their ancestor, Japheth. Jewish literature from the Second Temple through Maimonides recognizes much wisdom in Greek philosophy and much beauty in the Greek language.
The New Testament overflows with letters sent to different peoples, tailoring Jesus’ message to appeal to their varying characters.
In Europe, the tension between the Roman national character and that of the Germanic tribes defined centuries of history—with clear resonance in certain eugenics circles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Beginning with the Battle of Hastings, an Anglo tradition very different from the continental tradition emerged. The British and French Empires showed markedly different characters. Napoleon’s quest to conquer Europe pushed some of France’s worst characteristics to the fore; Hitler did even worse with characteristic German traits.
Russian and Chinese communism took on very different characters—and both look quite different from Latin American communism. Japan preserved much of its unique character while transitioning from monarchy to republic. Perhaps most famously, in the words of noted historian Jacob Talmon, “the state of the Jews has become the Jew of the states.” The soul that long animated the Jewish nation is evident to all who look at the modern Jewish state.
Part of America’s unique contribution was to demonstrate that individuals can wrest themselves from the nations of their birth to join and belong to a very different nation. The American soul was always distinct.
Events of the past few decades reveal that our distinctive national soul is afflicted with a deep spiritual ailment. Much of what we have experienced—in particular, our dangerous political polarization—is symptomatic of that disease.
Too many of our people—and a clear majority of the urban, credentialed, professional elite running our institutions and shaping our culture—have become alienated from our national soul. They feel nothing for what it means to be American, nothing for the ways in which the American soul is exceptional, nothing for the animating American spirit of our founding.
They reject even a nominal grounding in biblical ethics. They flail about seeking transformation. They see “racism” rather than “evil” as the persistent, pervasive explanation for continued human suffering. They fear an end of days brought about not by humanity living out of alignment with God’s morality but by humanity living out of alignment with the climate. They see the human soul not as a potentially uplifting force impelling us beyond our material needs but as a source of identity so powerful that it can override biology.
Their wokeism is rapidly becoming the dominant faith of the American elite. With each passing year, they ratchet forward their drive to turn it into the established religion of the United States. If they succeed, they will indeed have transformed more than our government. A nation with a Woke soul will be very different than the nation founded with an American soul.
National souls, like the nations they define, rise and fall. The descendants of Ammon and Moab may be alive today, but the nations themselves are history. So too are the once-mighty Assyrian, Babylonian, Aztec, and Mayan nations. Our grand American nation is similarly mortal. Joe Biden was correct in seeing incipient fascism as a threat to the American soul. He erred greatly in trying to identify its source.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was the first and remains the finest articulation of the American soul. Americans believe—as self-evident truths, no less—in inherent human equality, a Creator, natural law, and individual rights.
Fascism, an outgrowth of utopian socialism, rejects these truths. To fascists, a national leader (or a small leadership group) must make paternalistic judgments about the common good of the nation and promulgate edicts to promote that vision. All national institutions must mobilize in pursuit of these national interests. Individual citizens or subjects must subdue their individual preferences for the common good. Those who refuse to do so—or even dare to question the leadership—are, by definition, enemies of the state and of the public
In today’s America, there are indeed people who advocate such an agenda. Over the past few years, they have pushed widespread economic shutdowns and mandatory masking and vaccination to meet the common goal of fighting COVID. They advocate for a radical reinterpretation of history and a view of human sexuality that runs counter to genetics and biology. They champion draconian efforts to alter the environment. They admire the greater efficiency—and, at times, efficacy—of dictatorships over free societies. They cheer the mobilization of the IRS, FBI, CDC, FDA, and the Departments of Justice and Education in pursuit of these goals. All, of course, in the pursuit of “justice” as the woke elite define it on behalf of the common good. And they call it “democracy.”
In the spiritual realm, these people are deeply woke. In the political realm, they staff the Biden Administration, lead the most corrupt government institutions, and promote media and social media censorship. They vote for Democrats—overwhelmingly. Their agenda goes beyond merely advocating flawed policy; it strikes deep at the American soul.
The threat to the soul of our nation is real and palpable. Its source is not, however, the one Biden identified. Therein lies both the deepest of ironies and the enormity of the challenge. We are indeed locked into a battle for the very soul of our nation. Joe Biden and his woke followers are not on the side of the angels.