Does a Nation Have a Soul?

Author: Gary Hart

This is not a rhetorical question to which I have an answer.  I don’t know.  Most political people would laugh and say no.  But, it is worth at least a momentary thought.

It is difficult to imagine that a mass democracy of 300 million could have a soul, because we don’t know exactly what a soul is.  It is usually described with regard to individuals as a consciousness, a sense of ultimate things, a moral conscience, a compass of right and wrong, a longing for immortality.  Hard to imagine all of us Americans having a collective soul. 

But what if we did?  What if there were some Supreme Being or Divine Providence that judged nations, judged them by how they behaved morally and ethically to each other and to people in other nations.  We might be judged by our sense of justice and fairness and humanity and compassion.  Our national soul might be judged by the standard to which we hold ourselves, whether we lived up to the ideals we claim to believe in.  Jesus taught those who followed him that they would be judged not by how they treated their friends, but how they treated their enemies.

This is a subject for graduate classes in theology.  It is certainly well beyond the realm of politics.  But at the very least it intrudes on the delicate, mostly unspoken debate about security and freedom.  How much of our freedom, as individuals and as a nation, are we willing to sacrifice to feel more secure?  This question is central to all nations and to democracies particularly.  But it is also a question of how much of our soul, our proclaimed commitment to liberty and justice for all, to the noble notion that all men and women are created equal, we are willing to trade to the Mephistopheles of history to guarantee that we will be both powerful and secure.

11 Responses to “Does a Nation Have a Soul?”

  1. Joe G. Says:

    A curious question, but one which really spins off into another direction. A country can have a collective conscience. Can one have a conscience without a soul?

  2. Forest Book Says:

    What if you chose to approach the question from this position: The sum of culture each day, is the living proof of that culture’s soul.

    For the United States we have to accept that we have a soul; nationally and globally. Without this belief the poetry of “United” is lost. For the United States, or any nation the evidence of soul is not , nor can it be exclusively in the political realm. Our political realm is meant to be our methodologies of nurturing our “United Soul.” From that vantage point it could not be clearer that our national soul comes up wanting. Or, in fact, in need.

    The elements that comprise a soul seem to be marketed away from the American people. Instead, in large numbers our United States choose blind faith, which is the substitute for lost or no faith in one’s self. We substitute hope with insatiable want. Consumption and accumulation substitutes for growth. We are in a perpetual state of fervent hustling (marketing/pr) which is the substitute for purposeful action. And now sadly, hubris is the stand in for dignity.

    Dignity being at the core of any beings soul.

    As long as we continue to allow our collective soul to be manipulated, overlooked, and malnourished by our current state of political realities; we will (justly so) be in a position to ask ourselves one simple question: “Where is our dignity?”

    Thank you very much for asking this vital question Mr. Hart. For me, and no doubt countless others; you are among those whose soul contributes to our national dignity.

  3. Bill Pruden Says:

    As has so often been true over the course of his career, Gary Hart again is willing to ask the questions that, as he so rightly notes, most poltical men would laugh at and say no. And yet as we survey the divisions that mark the modern world and try to determine the proper role for our nation in that world, as we ourselves suffer from the ravages of a culture that seems to prize the volume of an argument over its logic, it might well be wise for all public spirited men and women to ask themselves if indeed this nation has a soul and if not, why not? To at least this 21st century observer the words and ideas of the Declaration of Indepedence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, not to mention much of Lincoln’s work, establish a clear soul of what we at one time aspired to be. It would be a tragedy if we were to think we have lost or forgotten those roots.

  4. Scott Ellington Says:

    I think it’s indisputably self-evident that we have a national ego, a matrix of semi-rational beliefs in our collective supremacy in a (dwindling) number of diverse domains.

    Perhaps the very implausibility of our national soul, our collective conscience, reflects unarguably badly on our current perception of Posterity, as the (self-interested) folks who founded this nation might define it for the Secretary of Conscience, the Czar of Soul.

    And perhaps the very derision with which political people would regard your question is a special kind of condemnation that requires a call for national contemplation and ethical reconsideration, lest our leaders embrace an increasingly-sameful future.

    I think you’ve asked a spectacularly important question.

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    Astute observations all, and I am grateful for the serious comments on a theme that could have invited ridicule from the less thoughtful.
    I am particularly grateful for the kind personal references from Mr. Book and Mr. Pruden.

  6. George Harben Says:

    Senator Hart, this is an interesting question. And one certainly worth pondering. I think the nation does have a soul, but not in exactly how you meant it. A soul has values that are constant. It can be corrupted, but the values are the same.

    The Roman Empire comes to mind. It was one of the greatest societies in the history of the world, but it fell to corruption, greed, etc. Its values were diminished. Subsequently, the empire fell. Was the soul of Roman Empire corrupted or did the country’s leaders lose sight of its values?

    A country has shared values, but change over time. For example, the U.S. sanctioned slavery and segregation. Now, we do not. Did the values change? Or to put it differently, did the citizens of the U.S. become more enlightened?

  7. John Donovan Says:

    It is clear that Lincoln thought so. “If every drop of blood drawn by the lash must be paid by a drop of blood drawn by the sword, it may still be said, as it was said long ago, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” (2nd Inaugural). I have a website on divine providence (see url above) and I’d be pleased to know your reactions, if any. On another note, I think it’s worth noting that the Islamists threatening the West now regard us as decadent and it’s one point in which I happen to be in agreements with them. In fact, that’s an area in which they feel WE’VE invaded THEM — through films, etc. The spiritual might intersect with the historical in ways that would surprise and even frighten us.

  8. George Harben Says:

    Interesting quote from Theodore Roosevelt. “No nation ever amounted to anything if it did not have within its soul the power of fealty to a lofty ideal.”

  9. Linda Valentine Says:

    I am struck by the single statement this is beyond the realm of politics, it should not be I think. In fact the soul of the Nation, the fiber and content of character of the Nation should be front and center.

    That we, both individually and collectively, have wandered so far from off the path of what was intended is why we are in such dire straights today. Thus who stand before us as our representatives, who we elect in fact no more represent us than do the sheep in the fields or the cattle led to slaughter. While other nations raise their voices in frustration, we simply spit inconsequential snipes at the other side of the aisle diverting attention from the real issues of the day.

    Does the Nation, any Nation have a soul? Yes, I believe it does. We unfortunately have lost ours somewhere along the way.

  10. Usama Tariq Says:

    Indeed nations do have a core, a soul. To most, the collective soul searching occurs during the election times. However, most often in order to live in peace, one needs to let others live in peace. While this applies to an individual’s soul, its totally applicable to a nations’s soul. No matter how virtuous the principles like freedom and justice may be, but invading lands on them not only downplay the essence of these principles but also corrupt the nation’s soul within.

  11. steve harvey Says:

    Joe G. hit close to the essence of the matter by identifying “collective conscience,” though I think that “collective consciousness” is really what it comes down to. Sen. Hart might see a particular value, such as “liberty,” as that which defines the soul of a nation (if one exists), but I see it as the complex, dynamic, coherent but differentiated cognitive/social institutional landscape. I think my description in “The Fractal Geometry of Social Change” ( captures it well.

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