“We are in a battle for the soul of this nation,” said Joseph Biden while racing toward his final showdown with Donald Trump last year. The pronouncement turned heads, his invocation of an ancient philosophical concept crashing into a heated public reckoning over whose nation, exactly, was hanging in the balance.
When we use the word “soul,” we are typically referring to that immaterial force that sustains and also distinguishes a life—whether that life belongs to a human individual or a collective life form. If there is a fight to hold on for dear life, as the “battle for the soul” implies, there must be something out there that is threatening to kill that life. Survival instincts push all living things to set up defenses against threats real or perceived. For human beings united under a constitutional government, there are bound to be different views and values around what gives life to a people, and what, conversely, causes them harm. In the United States, this conflict has reached a fever pitch.
What is our nation’s soul, and who’s defining the battle lines? How might the answers to those questions help each of us discern our role and shape the strategy to win?
I don’t ask these questions rhetorically. For centuries, politicians, journalists, historians, educators, and pretty much every white male in a position of power have been able to define America’s principles and values. They have written the laws, told the history, shaped the norms, and named the stakes for the rest of us—indigenous people, black people, various peoples of colour, and women. This extraordinary influence wielded from such a narrow cultural lens has not only influenced generations of lives in the United States, it has also set the stage for standards of behaviour toward black and brown bodies that reverberate around the world.