Freedom’s Just Another Word…

Neither I nor my spouse plans to run for president, so I can say this out loud: it has been quite a while since I felt a pure and uncomplicated pride in being an American. But this morning, riding my bike to school through the crisp autumn air, I found lines from the Gettysburg Address cycling through my mind. More importantly, I felt myself really believing them, deeply and emotionally affirming “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This is overdramatic, but, frankly, I’ve had my doubts. Many other moderates and left-of-center types have as well. These doubts, of course, are not the lack of patriotism that the Right likes to present in grotesque caricature. Neither I nor anyone I know has ever stopped believing, or taking pride, in the ideals of America: freedom, equality, human rights, democracy and the rest. What we have felt, though, was that Rovian Republicans had appropriated those words via a skillful sleight of hand. They took “freedom,” hollowed out its meaning, and filled the space with freedom-as-security. This new freedom justified torture and an abandonment of due process rights and, to many of us, looked like no freedom at all.

There’s no need to multiply the examples, I suppose. Anyone still reading understands the queasy sense of disorientation that accompanied the Bush administration’s manipulation of the language of our ideals. How can you convincingly argue, in a conversation with a normal (non-academic) person, that you do love freedom—just not what they mean by it?

In the end, I came to feel what my mother, a moderate Baptist, felt about the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s and 1980s: It wasn’t that she moved away from her church, she told me, it was that her church moved away from her. In a similar way, it seemed to me that the church of America had kept its old exclusivities (of race, for example) and added new ones. Resisting wars and protesting the erosion of legal protections were reasons to exclude. If my mom didn’t love Jesus enough for the fundamentalists, I apparently didn’t love freedom enough for the neo-cons.

For academics at least, the idea of the nation as a church resonates with notions of civil religion, put forward most famously by Robert Bellah in 1967. The basics are intuitive—that the the will of God is somehow revealed in the experience of the American people, that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are sacred texts, that we collectively continue with the millennial mission of this city set upon a hill. For Bellah, though, civil religion wasn’t merely a system of symbols, but also something that bound diverse Americans together in a real, emotional and moral way. It was something you felt together, not something you thought alone.

Last night, it felt like the nation as I know it came together in that way, believing that the country was really still ours, that we still belonged in it, that the effort to change its meaning to something mean and narrow had been dealt a defeat. So when I remember this election, I will remember the faces pressed together in Chicago’s Grant Park— young and old, black and white, famous (Oprah!) and utterly obscure.

More personally, I will think about the young Middle Eastern stranger who hugged me when CNN called the election for Obama. In the middle of an Atlanta bar, he hugged me for probably five seconds before letting go. Normally, it would have been uncomfortable. Last night, it felt just about right.