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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

Reclaim the idea of America

Swings, lawn chairs, benches, tables, blankets and anything else that could protect our bums from the prickly grass. It wasn’t a concert. It wasn’t a play. It wasn’t any old barbecue. Stuffed into every crevasse in the backyard of a small little southern church, we had all gathered for something crazy. 

We were transfixed with a small frail women. Her dark curly hair framed her kind but firm face as the sun beat down upon her. A woman by the name of Ritika or “bringer of justice,” every word from her mouth was crisp as if directly from the divine. Her words ricocheted between each of our ears as she told us, “America was born of original sin, but just like us, can be born again.”

In the Barnacle on the Hull of Liberalism, I argued that Patrick Deneen and others on the post-liberal right are vultures of opportunism. They see liberal democracies in peril around the world and have built “epic theory” around the expedition of its destruction not for a genuine concern for the working class (who Deneen is most certainly not part of), but because of their own frustrations with the expansion of rights for certain marginalized groups.

Liberalism, and the United States born of it, is neither good or evil. However, the ideals of it are profoundly transformative. Classical liberalism is an emancipatory political philosophy built on the rights of the governed, rule of law, individual autonomy and political freedom. A mix between the Enlightenment and romanticism, it opens the aperture of our dreams.

Nothing has made me feel the power of the founders more profoundly that sitting in the back of a little Black church in the middle of nowhere Arkansas. Not any lecture, book or banquet. Ritika wound up, like a baseball player at bat, beginning her sermon of the world as it is caught between what it ought to be. Not a pastor, priest or politician, yet she believed her words had power and the ability to change the world around her.  In the two-hour meeting, surrounded by religious leaders and sharing sacred stories of the lives we’ve lived, I found power through redemption. 

Ritika didn’t shy away from our original sins — chattel slavery, expansion of empire, colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples. She also didn’t revel in them. She didn’t think of America as a project that irredeemably sucks, but as one with abounding potential. 

Those who believe in the ideals of liberalism continue to make multiple big mistakes that bend the propellers of our engines, weakening our own ability to stay in the air. Firstly, we rightly criticize what needs fixing, but at points we forget to emphasize that we are doing such because there is something good and noble worth saving. That our sins don’t define us, our actions and dreams do. 

Secondly, we use the maps that have gotten us into these storm clouds to try and lead us out. A grind culture of working until you drop will not redeem a system built on the exploitation of labor. Never-ending gauntlets of prestige will not erase a system built on hierarchies. Using the same logic as cold war liberals, who embodied a liberalism of fear, will not allow us to imagine beyond that fear. 

Thirdly, we rightly push back on the bulwarks of progress. Yet we forget that those against liberalism are having their moment precisely because of our progress. Deneen and others who seek to tear liberalism apart do such because of how far we have come. Deneen is stuck in original sin too — in the sin of those who believed that the American project was too radical and that the expansion of who was considered human or worthy of grace was a step too far. 

Forgetting these things, we become immobile. We tear down America. We believe her sell-by date has come. We make change sound impossible. We fail to remind people what we’re for, who we are and the world as it ought to be. Ritika and I worked an entire summer to try to get these scrappy groups of leaders together. To provide a path for resurrection.

Ritika and I had worked all of summer 2021 to bring together religious leaders to get them to share information about HIV prevention and to discuss what it might look like to push back against Arkansas’ earliest attempts to block gender affirming care. Most did not agree with our goals. Most believed such behaviors were baked in sin. Most probably even voted for the very leaders who pushed the laws to block care. Yet they believed so much in this radical experiment that they decided to hear us out.

Reclaiming the idea is not a capitulation to the sins of our past, but a call to reconciliation and redemption. Reclaiming the idea of America from the bigots and fools is how we get the progress we so dearly yearn. Spreading ideas that America is done for or that it is a project doomed from the beginning, is a good way to never win over hearts and minds. You will lose every weird coalition partner. A purified tidal wave is not a wave, it is just a sad little puddle. Purity is a luxury only the privileged can afford.

Not only is spreading the gospel of irredeemability bad political strategy, but also, it’s categorically untrue. Liberalism has always been a project in progress. One where emancipation is forever in contest and a dream. The country has always tried to get better like people do. To live more deeply by those values it claims to hold. To overcome its original sins. 

If you’re in the camp that still believes in liberal democracy. That still believes in an evidence-based and empirical reality. That still believes that nobody is above the law. That still yearns for the ideals of freedom and justice for all. Then it’s time to reclaim the idea of America. Of a United States that was born of a radical dream that we could govern together, not under the singular rules or claims of a Pope or monarch, but through enduring ideals and anonymous trust in one another.

If you’re not in the camp that believes in liberal democracy, that’s OK, we’re recruiting. We’re building a highway with more on ramps then off ramps. Where we’re all able to hold our individual truth claims yet come together under larger communal ones. That’s the idea of America, an idea I believe is worth saving.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus Books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.