Trygve Throntveit is development officer and dean’s fellow for civic studies at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. He is the author of “William James and the Quest for an Ethical Republic.”
As a pastor’s kid and churchgoing adult, I’ve sat through many a sermon. The best elicit three responses from their audiences: wonder, irony and faith. Wonder at the discomfiting yet sublime mystery of existence; irony to appreciate and cope with its contradictions; and faith to make what practical sense of it we can, knowing that whatever our ultimate destiny, we are co-creators of the world we live in now.
Eric Liu’s collection of “civic sermons” is an extended effort in this vein, exhorting Americans to love the nation they have by becoming the nation they want. As chief executive of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, Liu has worked for years to get more Americans engaged in public life — but this project is different. Liu has realized that what our polarized, inequitable, dysfunctional polity needs today is not civic engagement but “civic religion”: a collective change of heart, mind and habit. His wondering love for our troubled republic, ironic sense of responsibility for its flaws and improvement, and democratic faith in the civic capacities of his fellow Americans are bracing. They also point to agendas both broader and more concrete than Liu himself provides.
Liu originally delivered his sermons in a series of 19 Saturday gatherings, launched after the 2016 election as “a civic analogue to church” for others “grief-stricken” by Donald Trump’s victory. Though not religious in the theological sense, Liu believes that the major faith traditions have much to teach regarding “how to help people find meaning and belonging, how to interpret texts and to reckon with the gap between our ideals and our reality, how to sustain hope and heart in a sea of cynicism and hate.” Framed by pieces of “civic scripture” drawn from a diverse American canon, Liu’s sermons emphasize three themes to instill civic hope and purpose in his audience.
First, “civic” and “citizen,” rightly understood, are not partisan or legal terms. What the emerging Civic Studies movement calls civic renewal — promoting the practical, healthful influence of common people on public life — must embrace all who depend on and contribute to the political community. Excluding and resisting rather than including and engaging those who do not share or fit our particular political vision will never bring that vision to pass. Meanwhile, it precludes the tough compromises and grudging cooperation that might deliver the next best thing. Instead, we need love: a love of country and of others that wonders at their complexity and sees in it opportunities for growth.
Second, inclusive citizenship does not require moral relativism. Rather, it demands humility to value the common good more highly than our personal ideas for achieving it, and thus courage to put our own moral claims and others’ to the test. Citizens have a responsibility to scrutinize society and themselves; to make reasoned arguments as well as consider them; to pursue ideals yet avoid becoming their prisoner. Here a healthy sense of irony helps us appreciate not only that our enemies might become our teachers but that our reality might be as contradictory as our politics. Is the United States “devolving into a society like modern Russia” or “evolving into a truly participatory democracy”? “The truth,” Liu concludes, “is both at the same time.” Perhaps; but it would be arrogant and feckless to assume that the double vision of one modern progressive captures the full plurality of political truth.
Liu is not so arrogant or feckless, as revealed in his third major theme: “democracy in America is an act of faith.” The fact that our nation’s laws, traditions, character and purposes are contested is not an argument against American democracy but evidence that its forms and destiny remain unfixed. What we don’t like, we can change — but only if we move beyond professing our faith in democracy and start living it. This means more than endorsing correct policies and voting for the right candidates; more, even, than getting woke, demanding justice or resisting its opposite. It means inviting strangers and rivals to work with us, even if only as respectful critics. It means building new and strange relationships, designed not for comfort but for solving mutual problems and securing a common good. Democratic faith means faith in the civic potential of our motley neighbors. And the “cynics” who betray that faith? “We can out-believe them. We can out-love them, out-trust them, out-mobilize them, out-imagine them.”
Liu’s sermons can be florid, but there is nectar to glean. His analysis of Trump’s victory is a useful corrective to accounts blaming racists, sexists and plutocrats to the exclusion of millions who simply wanted to blow up the giant dream-pulping machine of American politics. Liu also gestures toward important intellectual resources for civic politics, though sometimes too obliquely. He clearly understands Martin Luther King Jr.’s practice of nonviolence as philosopher Karuna Mantena has more lucidly explained it: not as a Christian duty but as a political strategy for attracting allies and enhancing power. Elsewhere Liu mines his sources more efficiently. Invoking the American pragmatist William James’s notion that “the worth of a belief . . . can be measured best by its practical effects,” Liu draws its clear implication for civic religion: Venerate our national institutions and traditions, but “only to the extent that they lead to a truly beloved community.”
The book’s glaring absence is a strategy for change. Liu’s specific policy preferences and general indictment of white supremacy amount to preaching to the progressive choir, while his encouragements to map the power structures of our local communities and infiltrate them through volunteering or committee work seem paradoxically daunting and inadequate. Liu’s exhortation to “practice power” in everyday life would be more inspiring if he identified sites both strategic and familiar in which to do so. Take workplaces, where scholars Albert Dzur and Harry Boyte already find “democratic professionals” attending to the public valence of their work and leveraging their diverse, often conflicted relationships with colleagues and clients to train their civic muscles. Or higher education, which currently fosters a careerist individualism in millions who could be taught to see one another as partners in and with their institutions rather than masters, clients or antagonists of them.
Perhaps this is asking too much of Liu, who might justly claim that the preacher’s job is not to prescribe but to arrest, challenge and inspire. Many readers will find that in these tasks he succeeds. We may hope that they are numerous, diverse, tolerant, courageous and patient enough to build a new commons in response.
By Eric Liu
301 pp. $24.95