The soul of the nation is “a very old trope that is revived when all kinds of cultural ideas are flowing,” said Eric Gregory, professor of religion at Princeton University. “It reveals something about the current political conversation, in times of crisis and change, a corruption of the disease.”
We often emphasize systems and institutions, he said, but in the Trump era there has been a return to old concepts about the well-being of the city, where politics is about the right relationships. “In ancient politics, the health of society had a lot to do with the virtue of the ruler,” he said.
In the United States, the question of who could define the soul of the nation was tense from the beginning, from the forced displacement of Native people to the enslavement of Africans.
And the state of the nation’s soul has often been tied to America’s oppression of Black people. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass fought for an “invincible abhorrence of the entire system of slavery” to “fixate on the soul of the nation.” Lyndon B. Johnson said the country found its “soul of honor” in the Gettysburg fields. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders formed what is now the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, they made their founding motto “to save the soul of America.”
This year, President Trump has positioned himself as the defender of a threatened Christian America under siege. “In America, we do not turn to government to restore our souls, we put our faith in almighty God,” he said at the Republican National Convention. Franklin Graham, one of his evangelical followers, wrote last year that this time is “a battle for the soul of the nation,” as the original “moral and spiritual framework, which has held our nation together for 243 years, is is undoing ”.
For Biden, the soul of the nation was brought to the fore after the deadly demonstration of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago. “We have to show the world that America continues to be a beacon of light,” he wrote at the time.
From the beginning, the message of his campaign has been one of a broader morality and not one specific politics or ideology. When Biden says this is a battle for the nation’s soul, he doesn’t use it religiously but rather as a synonym for character, said presidential historian Jon Meacham, who has spoken with Biden often about the soul.