Joe Biden declared his third bid for the presidency on April 25, 2019 in three and a half minutes video. The format was new, but for Biden it was based on an outdated conception of masculinity.
He spoke about the August 12, 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, about which Donald Trump said there were “very good people on both sides.” The incident provided Biden with a story frame of good versus evil, which he entered as some kind of superhero.
“At that moment,” intoned Biden, as viewers watched white supremacists marching with torches, “I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I have ever seen.”
I wrote at that time that we are in the battle for the soul of this nation. Well that’s even more true today. We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.
If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will fundamentally and forever alter the character of this nation. About us. And I can’t stand still and watch that happen.
The core values of this nation, our position in the world, our own democracy, everything America has made, America, is at stake.
Captain America, retired and to the rescue. The Charlottesville setting, adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, gave Biden a pretext for citing the Declaration of Independence. And the video showed, in colonial cursive, passages that many Americans could recite by heart.
The narrative framework of the “battle for America’s soul” served Biden well. It helped differentiate Biden’s criticism of Trump, both personal and constitutional. He turned his age into a campaign asset: A man with a historical conscience would be a good fit for the Democrats, a party that generally opts for the youth. And he ennobled his call for unity as a solution to Trump’s division. A Biden victory would win the battle for the soul by appealing to transcendent patriotic values.
Two men, advisor Mike Donilon and historian Jon Meacham, have worked on Biden’s speeches and “soul” verbiage. But regardless of the author’s division of labor, it was Biden’s approval, delivery, and personality that gave the phrase its public meaning.
During the campaign, Biden repeated his theme in speeches on national holidays and historic anniversaries, often in Pennsylvania – on May 18, 2019. campaign start rally at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia; on a June 2, 2020 speaks at Philadelphia City Hall (commenting on the outbreak of protests over the death of George Floyd and the President’s use of tear gas in Lafayette Square in Washington); and on October 6, 2020 at the Gettysburg Battlefield:
You and I are part of a pact, a common history of overcome divisions and renewed hope. If we do our part, if we stick together, if we keep faith in the past and in each other, the divisions of our time will give way to dreams of a brighter and better future. This is our job. This is our promise. This is our mission.
Pennsylvania is both the state where Biden was born and an ever-changing state. As the city where the fundamental documents of the United States were written and signed, Philadelphia stands out in the national imagination as the Jerusalem of what sociologist Robert Bellah called “civil religion”. In his 1966 analysis of Washington’s inaugural addresses to Kennedy, Bellah noted that presidents up to the incumbent at the time, Lyndon Baines Johnson, broadened and deepened their rhetoric by invoking God. He was not the God of any particular denomination or a superficial reverence for the religiosity of the American people. Rather, such references to God legitimized political authority by “providing moral consensus in the midst of continuous political change.” Invocations of civil religion reassure and integrate the various members of a pluralistic capitalist society.
Biden relied more on the word “soul” than on “God”, but the functionality was the same. “Soul” is also a word with an extensive philosophical and religious lineage. Denotes the essence of a being (or nation or people). It connotes reason, feeling, presence, expressiveness, depth, the substance of a style. In running for president, Biden embarked on a moral crusade. He fought, as he put it in another frequently used phrase, for “hope over fear, unity over division, and truth over lies.”
And “the idea of America” at the headquarters of the civil religion was not an empty notion. Jill Lepore’s 2018 Volume Story from the US Identified “These truths“As the core values of the nation: political equality, natural rights, popular sovereignty, and the meta-truth that they are” self-evident, “Benjamin Franklin’s Enlightenment amendment to Jefferson’s” sacred and undeniable. “
Like most campaign slogans, “the battle for America’s soul” was a convenient coinage, tinged in this case with a touch of bravado. However, it has become incredibly apt. Some Americans continue to resist “these truths” and others. And so Biden has justly continued to use the phrase as president.
In its opening speech two weeks after the assault on the Capitol and Congress, he cited Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “all my soul is in it” when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and reiterated his claim that national unity was essential “to restore the soul. and secure the future of America. ” In Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery:
America’s soul is animated by the perennial battle between our worst instincts, which we have seen lately, and our best angels. Between “Me first” and “We the people”. Between greed and generosity, cruelty and kindness, captivity and freedom.
In July 13Back at the National Constitution Center, Biden focused on the opposition:
It is no longer just about who can vote or making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It’s about who can count the vote, who can count if their vote was counted or not. It is about moving from independent electoral administrators working for the people to polarized state legislatures and partisan actors working for political parties.
For me, this is simple: this is electoral subversion. It is the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history …
We have to ask: are you on the side of the truth or the lie? reality or fiction; justice or injustice; democracy or autocracy? That’s what it comes down to …
Republicans on the other side sell disinformation and trust partisan polarization. They seek to deny the veracity of the 2020 election results and tilt the certification process so that it does not happen again in 2024. Under the banner of a “stolen” and “rigged” election and a grossly exaggerated claim of electoral “fraud” , they are carrying out irresponsible actions. audits and enactment of voter suppression laws in battle states, including Pennsylvania. They blocked the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the riots the day they voted to decertify the elections. Biden also cited Jim Crow in view of the racial dimensions of the battle of the soul. The opposition has launched a coded attack on a misused academic term, “Critical Theory of Race.”
TThe battle of the soul is different from the programmatic initiatives and negotiations that take place under another Biden motto, “Rebuild Better.” In that political arena, differences can be monetized and divided without resorting to dire dichotomies. However, the emotions elicited by voting cannot easily be compartmentalized and separated from the dollar figures.
The Battle of the Soul is also based on the effort to persuade Americans to get vaccinated, both in Biden’s exhortations to get the vaccine that appeal to patriotic duty and in the opposition’s efforts to label vaccination resistance as a defense of freedom against the government. Analyzing that argument requires an essay in itself, although I note in passing that Biden’s rhetorical approach has avoided appointing a “czar” to coordinate public appeals and administration briefings, thereby putting distance between the battle of the soul and the urgent pandemic project. mitigation. As it stands, government messages about Covid go through the president and state governors. And it is certainly valid to see the battle against the virus as a test of the force of reason in politics.
The occasions for more speeches of the soul dot the national calendar. A rally in Washington DC on August 28 will commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, which the president will likely acknowledge but not attend. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will necessarily reference the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but Biden could also validate the House investigation into the Capitol unrest as if it were in the spirit of the 9/11 Commission. September. Thanksgiving is the quintessential holiday of American civil religion. More chances will arise after the Congressional vote on the Voting Rights Laws For the People and John Lewis.
But before any of those holidays or events appear on the civil religion calendar, next Thursday, August 12, marks the fourth anniversary of the battle that marked Biden’s starting point. You might do well to travel to Charlottesville and speak at the downtown location vacated by the July 10 removal of the Robert E Lee statue that sparked the Unite the Right rally. It would be a sign that the largely nonviolent but deeply contentious war on the American idea is being won, because that is what amounts to a series of battles.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism