Become America

A conversation about saving the civic soul.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. He also directs the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program. He is the author of several books, including The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker, The Gardens of Democracy (co-authored with Nick Hanauer), You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, and his most recent, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy. Eric served as a White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and later as the president’s deputy domestic policy adviser. He has served as a board member of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Washington State Board of Education, and the Seattle Public Library and is a co-founder of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. A regular contributor to the Atlantic, Eric can be found on Twitter, @ericpliu.
Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (Moody, 2010). He appears regularly on PBS NewsHour, Face the Nation, and other programs. Gerson serves as senior adviser at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speechwriting.

In this interview, Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, talks to Eric Liu, former Deputy Assistant to Bill Clinton, about Eric’s recent book: Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy. For the last number of years, Eric has given a series of sermons on what have become known as “Civic Saturdays,” ritualized gatherings hosted by Citizen University, where Eric serves as the founding CEO. What began in Seattle can now be found in over thirty cities across the United States. Civic Saturday seeks to gather “friends and strangers to nurture a spirit of shared purpose,” and offers a space to “reflect and connect around the values and practices of being an active citizen.” As you’ll discover, their conversation is about much more than a book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Gerson: Eric, I really enjoyed your timely and important book. One of the most remarkable things about it is its form. I want to start off by asking: Why wrap civic engagement in the form of religion?

Eric Liu: First of all, I’m so grateful we’re having this conversation, and the admiration is profoundly mutual.

I would say, as you well know, that the forms of religious ritual and gathering are deeply ingrained not just sociologically, but psychologically. We are wired to seek meaning. We are wired to seek meaning in the company of others. We are wired then to create rituals that make sacred the mystery of both existence and the miracle of the fact that we’re even able to pull together and hold together a society that runs more than one round.

It’s not surprising that these forms, these structures, these methods, these modes would resonate with people whether or not they were themselves practitioners of a faith tradition. In my own life, I was not raised in any faith tradition. My parents were born in mainland China during war and revolution and then went to Taiwan before coming to the United States as students. They had never been raised in a religious tradition. And yet, I would say that more than your average person, I’m especially wired for belief and belonging and to make meaning. And I think as the child of immigrants and somebody who, from the get-go, has appreciated both this exceptional blessing and the exceptional burden that comes with it of inheriting a creed, I’ve channelled a lot of that innate wiring for belief and belonging into a desire to make American life as meaningful as it can possibly be. And that desire has been transmuted into what I think of as American civic religion.

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