What Unites Us?
As we approach another anniversary of 9/11, we should remember that tragedies alone cannot sustain our unity
Sunday marks the twenty-first anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I’ve previously reflected about my experience in the Pentagon that morning as a young lawyer working for the Department of the Air Force. In this week’s newsletter, I’d like to focus on a different dimension of 9/11: the fleeting but genuine sense of unity in the days and weeks that followed, and how we might think about that unity today.
The picture at the top of this post shows firefighters and military personnel unfurling an enormous flag on the side of the Pentagon a few days after the attacks. I remember that moment. I also remember the flags that hung from overpasses along I-395, the spontaneous singing of “God Bless America” by a bipartisan group of members of Congress, and the crayon pictures that lined the Pentagon’s smoke-stained corridors, sent from schoolchildren across the country in the days following 9/11.
It all felt genuinely unifying, and it was—at least for many Americans. But it was a unity that rested largely on tragedy, fear, and naming a common enemy. This blend of influences also isolated, rather than unified, some of our fellow citizens, including Muslims and Sikhs. And it eventually undergirded American foreign policy decisions that killed hundreds of thousands of non-Americans.
A unity built on tragedy, fear, and a common enemy cannot sustain a people—at least not without great cost to others.
In the News
Last week, President Biden attempted to tap into American unity in a primetime speech to the nation. Biden relied on tragedy (the January 6th assault on the Capitol), fear (current and prospective threats to the Democratic process), and naming a common enemy (“extreme MAGA Republicans”). In doing so, he neglected appeals to political compromise or gestures of goodwill toward his non-MAGA political opponents. As with much of the post 9/11 rhetoric, Biden’s speech offered little positive vision for American unity.
Writing in the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat summarized the lack of unifying themes in Biden’s speech and suggested that the President could have made “concessions without giving an inch in its critique of Donald Trump.” As Douthat noted, those concessions could have acknowledged that Democrats are partly to blame for “undermining faith in American elections,” or that there are people of goodwill who support the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. In condemning the political violence of MAGA Republicans, Biden could have called out violence by progressives, including “the worst of the May and June 2020 rioting, the recent wave of vandalism at crisis pregnancy centers or the assassination plot against Brett Kavanaugh.” Instead, the President delivered what Douthat characterized as “a cascade of liberal self-praise,” without any policy or rhetorical compromise aimed at uniting the country.
Of course, Biden is not alone in choosing partisan signaling over civic unity. Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric during and after his presidency has gone far beyond any other recent political leader. And Republicans like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have followed Trump’s playbook in focusing on fear and the enemy of “the Left” rather than appeals to unity.
Nor is critiquing Biden’s speech for its lack of unifying themes meant to diminish the very real threat of “extreme MAGA Republicans.” Relying on a common enemy to foster unity may be shortsighted and unwise, but it does not mean the enemy isn’t real.
In My Head
What does, or what could, unify the country? One possibility is the civil religion that law professor John Witte ascribes to early civic republicans like Benjamin Franklin. This kind of civil religion is not a full-blown religion. But it draws upon values, rituals, and symbols that give life and voice to a collective sense of citizenship and national pride. As Witte observes, civil religion:
. . . taught a creed of honesty, diligence, devotion, public spiritedness, patriotism, obedience, love of God, neighbor, and self, and other ethical commonplaces taught by various religious traditions at the time of the founding. Its icons were the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the bells of liberty, and the Constitution. Its clergy were public-spirited Christian ministers and religiously devout politicians. Its liturgy was the proclamations of prayers, songs, sermons, and Thanksgiving Day offerings by statesmen and churchmen. Its policy was government appointment of legislative and military chaplains, government sponsorship of general religious education and organization, and government enforcement of a religiously based morality through positive law.
One can quibble with some of the specifics of Witte’s list, but he is largely capturing the sense of Franklin and his contemporaries. He also identifies the key components of civil religion: creed, icons, clergy, liturgy, and policy. A unifying narrative requires all of these. It needs the telling and retelling of stories, as well as tangible and symbolic reminders of the ties that bind. And in a pluralistic society as diverse as ours, it also requires political compromise.
Today’s unifying narrative may not be civil religion or religion at all. But it will still require forms of creed, icons, clergy (who today may be respected leaders of different faiths or of no faith), liturgy, and policy aimed at uniting rather than dividing. It can be strengthened by tragedy, fear, and a common enemy, but it cannot be sustained by them alone.
I am doubtful that our current or future political leaders will lead the way toward a more positive and unifying vision. My hunch is that we will increasingly need to turn to other sources that highlight our common ground and inspire us to move toward it.
In the World
One of the most encouraging examples to me in recent years is Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which she delivered at President Biden’s inauguration. Here is a sample of Gorman’s unifying rhetoric:
[W]e lift our gaze, not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
“The Hill We Climb” was not an uncritical paean to the nation. Gorman also acknowledged “that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what ‘just’ is isn’t always justice.” And she named “a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.” But she did so without relying solely or even primarily on tragedy, fear, and a common enemy, focusing instead on possibility, hope, and grace.
Take a moment to watch (or rewatch) Gorman’s poem. And this weekend, as we remember and reflect on 9/11, let’s also consider what unites beyond tragedy, fear, and a common enemy.
Thank you, John, for your wise voice on this crucial issue. Press on.
Thank you, John.
I learned as a matter of theology that civil religion was bad, and I get the idea that especially to monotheistic religions, it is by definition — toleration of many faiths, and if closest to one, not close enough. I see how it is easily manipulated and subverted for state aims.
But I think your use of it as perhaps a solution, or a bridge is going in the right direction. Civil religion in the US is based largely on Judeo-Christian beliefs, it might well (and does) include basic truths shared among many faiths — or assemblies. This need not necessarily threaten other or additional faiths. It could be useful (and not blasphemous) even if disagreements remain about
nature of revelation and the role of good works, for example.
How to achieve this — less wariness and scrutiny of religious language used publicly, greater use of religious ballads (America the Beautiful) , . . ?