A conversation about saving the civic soul.
In this interview, Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, interviews 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.
The work of democracy itself is to a great extent faith-fuelled. Democracy is a bit of a gamble, a miracle, really, relying entirely on an infinitude of uncoordinated, un-vocalized leaps of faith that this thing’s going to work.
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.
MG: Before we go on, this is a movement that started in Seattle, which is known as a pretty secular part of the country. Did you have any resistance to the form of religion—the readings and the sermons—or were people open to that?
EL: People were open to it. There were some people who would make joking asides about being a lapsed fill-in-the-blank. “As a lapsed [blank] I never thought I’d be doing this again.” But even in their wry asides, they were recognizing what we were just talking about: that there is something deeply resonant about these forms and structures. And if you can create the sense very strongly at the beginning of invitation that this is truly going to be an inclusive gathering, and not try to replicate whatever it is that pushes your buttons about your prior experience with organized religion, then you can get people in the door. Sure, there were some people who came, who have loved being part of Civic Saturday, and intellectually understand the fact that we’ve designed this explicitly to be a civic analogue to a faith gathering to church or synagogue or mosque, and who still will admit to some resistance inside, and that’s okay.
As you can tell from the sermons, our approach to American civic religion is not one of dogma and certitude. It is one that is very much—perhaps deriving at least as much from the Jewish antecedents as anything else—about questioning and interrogation. And it’s very Jesuit in that sense too. It’s about discernment and formation. And so, I think that’s been the spirit with which we’ve tried to welcome people.
MG: Eric, on the other side of that, have you gotten any resistance from Christians who think that this is baptizing something secular? Has that been a problem?
EL: In the same way, we’ve heard a little bit of “I wasn’t so sure about this because, why do I need this? I’ve got church.” But no outright hostility because, I think, we’ve quite openly invited the question. Our message has been that whether you believe in a God or you believe in the absence of God, American civic religion does not require you to renounce your beliefs. It is meant to sit right alongside either your very devout practice of a traditional faith, or your commitment to non-practice, or atheism, or whatever it might be. This is fundamentally about recognizing that, in democratic life, the work of democracy itself is to a great extent faith-fuelled. Democracy is a bit of a gamble, a miracle, really, relying entirely on an infinitude of uncoordinated, un-vocalized leaps of faith that this thing’s going to work, that the way it’s going to work is going to have legitimacy, and that the guy next to me is going to make an effort to participate and not leave me to be the only sucker.
We are living through a time right now where we are realizing just how fragile that invisible web of mutual trust and belief can be. And when you suddenly see it and see holes torn in it, you realize, “Oh, wow. Okay, this is not just an automatic perpetual motion machine that renews itself. This is a web of belief.” And I think that it’s not belief in a deity, but a belief in each other and our capacity as a community to govern ourselves. And that, again, this approach to American civic religion is not about enshrining or worshipping the Constitution or seminal figures like Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. This is about challenging each other continuously, relentlessly to live up to a stated creed.
In American civic religion, the object of belief is our capacity to govern ourselves in a democratic fashion. And the set of beliefs are not only faith in each other, but a belief that society becomes how you behave; that your choices, your acts, your omissions are rapidly contagious and create the sense of normal or abnormal in a society.
MG: Well, let me dig into this. A lot of people know of civil religion, which gets both good and bad press in American history, but you’re talking about civic religion. What is the difference?
EL: Civil religion, particularly as popularized by the great American sociologist Robert Bellah about five decades ago, is the Christian leitmotif stretched across the frame of American experience. For example: the pilgrims and Puritans as the Israelites in Exodus, or abolition and the enslaved people of the United States on a biblical journey that would ultimately result in liberation.
Or Lincoln, in a sense, giving his life for the Union. The motifs of religion transposed onto political events. Other examples include Ronald Reagan speaking of “a city upon a hill,” and your former boss, as well as mine, making allusions to, in Clinton’s case, “a new covenant.” In Bush’s case, so much language that was part of the body of work that you all built around compassionate conservatism and recognizing that there was a way in which this is woven out of the strands of that Christian tradition. That legacy has great historical resonance, and it is a fact of our history, and it still has many positives.
What I’m talking about when I say civic religion is distinct. It is not merely the extension of the Christian motif. It is much more an emphasis on the simple fact that democracy works only when enough of us believe that democracy works. And that is, in its essence, a matter of belief, a matter of practice.
I go back not to Bellah here, but to an earlier antecedent: Émile Durkheim, the progenitor of modern sociology whose great book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life recognized that whether you look at the animistic traditions of the Aboriginal communities of Australia, or you look at Notre Dame in Paris and the Catholic Church in Europe, or you look at the great American Protestant, evangelical tradition, that in all cases, you can boil this searching and a set of rituals down to this dyad of belief and practice. And in American civic religion, the object of belief is our capacity to govern ourselves in a democratic fashion.
And the set of beliefs are not only faith in each other, but a belief that society becomes how you behave; that your choices, your acts, your omissions are rapidly contagious and create the sense of normal or abnormal in a society. These create the frame of the possible. We are learning right now that Trump has been very adept at re-expanding the frame of the possible and reordering the sense of normal and abnormal. He is a very potent top-down reminder of what we are bottom-up practicing everyday as citizens. And I think that dimension of belief has to be coupled with a dimension of practice.
Our notion of civic religion recognizes this is not just a blind faith or an unthinking worship of a set of words on parchment. It is actually a question of, How do I put the Preamble of the Constitution, or the spirit of the Declaration, or Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment, or Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall, or King’s speech on the Washington Mall, into practice? How do I put that into practice right now as I am walking past homeless people in this gentrifying part of my city? How do I put this into practice right now when I’m on the bus and someone from a disfavoured group is catching abuse from someone from a majority group? How do I put this into practice when I see patterns of contagion, of disrespect or disregard, unfolding in civic life, again, from the top down?
The idea of the American creed, which is central to this, is captured not only in the words in some of the documents I’ve cited, but also in the roll call and the record of deeds that we as Americans have committed. Some deeds are quite famous; some are unsung. Our memory of those deeds nationally or locally is a part, also, of what sustains the practice of civic religion. But this notion of civic religion ultimately is about what it means—as a matter of belief and practice—to live like a citizen.
MG: That matter of belief raises a question. At the founding, the overwhelming majority believed in a moral structure that undergirded politics either from a Christian perspective or an Enlightenment perspective. They had a certain anthropology, a belief in human rights and dignity rooted in a set of beliefs. Can you reconstruct that civic sense when these underlying beliefs are weakened?
EL: I really think you have named the question of our time. We have a simplistic mock equation that we sometimes use in our work at Citizen University, not only for Civic Saturdays, but for other programs that we do as well. And the mock equation goes like this: power plus character equals citizenship. To live like a citizen requires, in the first place, that you be literate in power—to understand how to move things and change things, whether it’s ideas or people or the government or money or whatever. But simply having literacy in power and understanding how to get what you want to get, while necessary, is completely insufficient. Literacy in power must be coupled with a deep grounding in civic character.
And we really take pains here to say we mean character in the collective. I’m not talking about individual virtues like diligence or perseverance or what have you, but collective virtues about mutuality and service and reciprocity and shared responsibility and so forth. If all you have is literacy in power but no connection to character, you’re just a finely skilled sociopath. But if all you have is a deep grounding in character in a very well-fleshed out philosophy, and you have no earthly idea how to actually move anything and change anything in democracy, then you’re just philosophizing.
So we really try to couple these things. And I give you that process because I think this notion of civic character gets at what you’re asking. I think you’re right that the founders and framers certainly had civic character as a baseline—both as an assumption in their times, but also in the expectation that in order for this republic to survive, there had to be a base layer of moral and civic character. A lot of the institutions that might once have formed or reinforced that character have fallen by the wayside, and many of the habits and structures that would have done that formation have also weakened.
That is precisely why we felt that doing Civic Saturdays is important at this moment. Our belief organizationally is that any renewal of this capacity for moral and civic character is not going to happen top down. It doesn’t help to have a president who lives out the opposite of many of the tenets and precepts of what you might think of as moral and civic character. But even when you have one who embodies those tenets and precepts, that alone is insufficient. This regeneration has to happen from the bottom up, from the middle out, from small circles of community outward. Civic Saturdays are meant to re-create for a society that has lost it the habit of face-to-face gathering and face-to-face reckoning; naming the moral and ethical challenges of our moment; rebuilding a little bit of muscle for how to talk about those; figuring out how to ask, “What would you do?” and, “What will you do?” There are precious few environments now where people are invited to do that reckoning. We started Civic Saturdays in Seattle, but I think the fact that almost immediately people around the country started asking us to bring Civic Saturdays to their towns says something. I think people on a very deep level, no matter how sophisticated they may be about national politics, know what you just said. They know that a republic has to have this base layer, and they know that that base layer is crumbling. And they know, too, that they’re only going to be able to fix it by fixing it themselves and not waiting on a hero, saviour, leader to come along and do that for us. That’s why last year we created a Civic Seminary, to train people from towns all over the United States to lead their own Civic Saturday gatherings and build their own communities of civic discernment in this way.
Look, I have no illusions that this work alone is enough, but I’m very influenced by the belief—and in some ways you might call it a politically conservative belief; it is a Tocquevillian belief, at least—that if each of us holds up our corner and if we each take responsibility for the webs and circles near and proximate to us, especially in this network age, we can spark a contagion of civic character.
MG: Eric, going through these brilliant little sermons, most of which are in three parts like a good Baptist would have it, I was struck that many of the democratic virtues we’re talking about are rooted in prudence and balancing competing values. So, let me just ask you about a couple of those.
You seem to emphasize at the same time an epistemological modesty—“a spirit not too sure of his right,” as Judge Learned Hand says—with a moral passion for justice. How do you balance those two things?
EL: Carefully! I think the moral impulse for justice is the animating force. The epistemological modesty is the necessary periodic check on that force. And I think that sequence is important. To me, the call for justice is primary. The call for actually living up to a creed of “liberty and justice for all” actually creating a mass, multiracial democratic republic that is, in fact, inclusive of everybody’s talent and potential.
We’ve come closer to it than anybody on earth, but we’re still quite a distance from it. And that asymptotic fight to keep on cutting in half the gap might never be cut all the way down to zero, but each round you cut that gap in half. And the nature of it is that there will always be a gap between our creed and our deeds, between our ideals and our actual practices as a society. But to me, the whole point of the American experiment is to try to close that gap. Given that we were born with a creed, our only charge now is to live up to it, and that’s why I put that call for justice first.
But I think at the same time that epistemological modesty you described, that spirit of doubt, not being too sure of oneself, is absolutely necessary. We see on both the left and the right today a fiery belief in the righteousness of your own cause, unchecked by any doubt or any notion that you might be wrong, or that someone else might have either a good point, or a point of view that is orthogonal to your own and must sit side by side with yours in an irreconcilable tension.
If you don’t have that, then you get the cancel culture of Twitter today; you get the hostility to a free speech that you see on many campuses today; you get the gleeful nihilism of the alt-right today. All of these are the result of the absence of the cultivation of that capacity for discernment, doubt, and epistemological modesty. We’ve got to have that. But I start with justice.
There will always be a gap between our creed and our deeds, between our ideals and our actual practices as a society. But to me, the whole point of the American experiment is to try to close that gap.
MG: Yeah. I’ve talked to college students on this topic before, and I think that they need to learn Letter from a Birmingham Jail and they need to read Reinhold Niebuhr.
MG: But they need to do Letter from a Birmingham Jail first.
MG: That’s the foundation. Instead of becoming world-weary too early about trying to work through conflicted moral choices.
EL: Yes. I think that is a great way to put it because if you flip that order, then all you have is doubt and uncertainty. You read in enough of the sermons that I am mindful of the abuse of this historical parallel, and I only make it carefully, but when you think about the decay of Weimar Germany, there was not enough faith in either democratic institutions or in your neighbour’s capacity to be part of a healthy self-governing body such that there was a paralysis that allowed people with a great righteous certitude to plow their way into power. The long-term antidote to that virus of authoritarianism, the long-term way to strengthen the body politic, is to strengthen this capacity for doubt and discernment.
MG: Let me raise a couple more instances of balance that I noticed. Your book encourages a reverence for the American creed. At the same time it’s very forthright in talking about the injustices of American history. How do you get that balance right? I’ve seen people go off both ends there.
EL: I think striking that balance is also the opportunity and challenge of our time. Brian Stevenson—whose words I selected as a reading of civic scripture for one of the sermons—often talks about how truth and reconciliation are sequential. You’ve got to first do truth and then do reconciliation. And you may not be able to do truth, in which case you may not be able to do reconciliation, but you certainly don’t get to fast-forward to the latter without reckoning with the former. I think that is true in our time. And a lot of the cultural politics of our time do not provide space for that sequencing or discernment. Take this weekend: The New York Times published the 1619 Project, a remarkable bundle of articles and features about the four-hundred-year history of enslavement and its legacy in the United States. The reactions on social media to that were very predictable.
On the one hand, there are people who just want to say this is the American story. No other story is true of America. And that’s wrong. On the other side there are people saying, “These people hate America; all they can do is accentuate the negative, and that was four hundred years ago.” And that’s wrong as well. It wasn’t just four hundred years ago. It is today, and it is woven into the legacy of almost every institutional system of public life we have.
The ability to walk and chew gum, the ability to do two things at once, the ability to reckon with truth and recognize what it means to rebuild a union, these are the tasks of a grown-up citizen. These are the tasks of a grown-up citizenry. I’m not sure we’re growing up. We’re regressing right now, but that’s still the challenge in front of us. And it is precisely because I believe so much in the creed that I think it’s important for us to name when we have betrayed it not because I therefore get to toss the creed aside and say, “It’s all a bunch of bull,” but precisely so that we now redeem it, or we pass on to the next generation a chance to redeem it.
In the infinite relay race of American civic religion, it is our job to see if we can get this baton to one more generation, and then it’s going to be their turn. We have no guarantees about what’s going to happen long after that.
I believe in the possibility of redemption. That’s the most religious and civic-religious thing I can say that connects both the creed and the recognition of our failings as a country. I think doing both is central to the work of being American for the rest of our lives.
MG: One more balance that I have a tough time achieving as a columnist: How do you humanize your opponents without normalizing their views?
EL: I don’t know, Mike. I think you’ve been practicing this as well as anybody I’ve seen out there, and you have a certain standing. When I go and point out the ills of Trumpists, well, I’m easily dismissed. I’m a Democrat. I worked for Clinton and Obama and so on and so forth. But you’ve got a certain standing that enables you to, I think, be heard in a different way.
But the mirror image is also true. I have a certain standing to say to people who are practicing too zealous a brand of identity politics on campuses, or who are too hostile to, and paint with too broad a brush, people who might be conservative. I have standing there to push back. I think the way that we do this—to humanize—is simply to recognize that there is some quantum of human experience: pain, yearning, loss, fear that has led somebody to a worldview, to the security of a worldview, to the security of a community that is bound together by that worldview.
And if the tenets of that worldview are in fact repugnant, understanding what human dynamics brought a person to that worldview does not mean actually forgiving, normalizing, or validating what’s repugnant in it, but it does mean holding yourself to account so that you don’t give up on them. You don’t dismiss them out of hand, and you don’t play right into their hands by treating them like the devil incarnate or like animals in a way that allows them to return the favour.
It’s simply about leading by example. You particularly, and other never-Trump conservatives, have faced this much more painfully than I have in this era. It can lead to a lot of rebuke and a lot of turning of backs. There’s a lot of that right now. But we need to remember that there is something human in this reaction of rebuke. We need to say, I set this example not because I necessarily assume that you whose views I don’t want to normalize are going to come around and like me and change your mind or be my friend, but because I can’t possibly change your mind and heart if I don’t show that my own mind and heart are also open enough to see your humanity.
MG: One final question: Some of the sermons in the book—a book that people should get and read—are done just as Donald Trump is taking power in the United States.
And some of the emotion, the anger in your book . . . it’s pretty raw. It leaves you, at one point, to question, to be skeptical about, democracy itself. And the question that I want to end with is, How do we restore our faith in democracy? What restores your faith in democracy?
EL: Mike, I’ll tell you this conversation restores my faith in democracy, number one. The fact that people of different political vantage points, different faith backgrounds, different formative experience, can take each other seriously as moral, intellectual, emotional beings recognizing humanity before we started recording, rolling tape, talking about the challenges and the pain that each of us has been facing in our families.
This is not only still possible; this is still what’s happening all across the United States. I really do believe that there is so much humanization still. There’s so much, in a way, precisely because there’s such a bad example being set by the current occupant of the presidency. I think a lot of people, whatever their politics may be, are taking it upon themselves in a greater way to lean in, to listen a little harder, to show a little more compassion, to question themselves a bit more, to hit pause, to not simply respond to the dopamine rush and the hormonal cycle of Trump’s inflammations.
In our work at Citizen University, what has given me faith in democracy is seeing people all around the country from small rural communities to big cities, from different backgrounds of every dimension of identity, trying to figure out how to make stuff work; trying to come together and solve problems at the local level; trying where they can to sustain relationships of trust and affection and responsibility. And I still think there’s a deep layer of that capacity in American life. It’s why I believe that if people like you and me can tend to that and actually remind people to tend to the gardens of our democracy and go back and not focus so much on what’s happening in DC and national politics but think about, How do you hold up your corner? How does your corner connect to my corner?
I’ve seen enough evidence of renewal and rejuvenation to believe that it can happen at a greater scale. That is not being Pollyanna. I’m eyes wide open that, as John Adams put it, “There has not been a democracy yet that eventually didn’t commit suicide.” And I think that, in the infinite relay race of American civic religion, it is our job to see if we can get this baton to one more generation, and then it’s going to be their turn. We have no guarantees about what’s going to happen long after that. But I think right now, we can actually do that.
And I meet enough people, I certainly meet enough young people in our work at Citizen University, to give me that faith. People who are motivated by justice, able to express doubt and self-doubt, able to connect the dots between ideas and action and responsibility and service, that I think we can come out of this. And at the end of the day, honestly, what choice do we have but to have faith and then try to practice it?
MG: That’s a great place to end, Eric. Thank you for a great conversation and for a great book. It really is something that Americans need to read.