July 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 12

The American Soul

By Rev. Raymond K. Petrucci

Photo of a movie slateSuppose the State Department asked you to assist in developing a program that would reflect the character of the United States through the creations of the American motion picture industry. The project is part of a wider initiative designed to provide people of other nations with an insight into the American spirit. What films would you choose? The task of capturing the soul of America by using its motion pictures is a challenging one. This effort is made more burdensome by limitations: such as the number of available films from an industry that is not much more than a century old and by your own exposure to these productions. I would recommend the following for consideration: City Lights, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, San Francisco, Sergeant York, Boys Town, Giant, Rocky, and especially To Kill a Mockingbird. The role of Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, exemplifies the faith, values, ideals, dreams, and heroic qualities of the best people in America.

Any presentation of the American spirit is essentially a declaration of the impact of the country's religious heritage. America's ideas of virtue and right as opposed to vice and wrong are either defined or implied in Scripture. The pursuit of justice and peace is an expression of a national and personal conscience that is understood to be accountable to God. Responsibility to a divine law encourages adherence to a civil law that is based upon it. The relationship between God's law and human law has always been tenuous, but there ought to be a commonality of sentiment at least. In a democracy, it should come as no surprise that controversies arise over the moral propriety of existing and proposed legislation. Wrestling over the correctness of law represents the state of the spiritual nature of the mores of the country.

Religion has been and still is a central, perhaps the central element of American identity. America was founded in large part for religious reasons, and religious movements have shaped its evolution for almost four centuries. By every indicator Americans are far more religious than the people of other industrialized countries. Overwhelming majorities of white Americans, of black Americans, and of Hispanic Americans are Christian. In a world in which culture and particularly religion shape the allegiances, the alliances, and the antagonisms of people on every continent, Americans could again find their national identity and their national purposes in their culture and religion.

- Samuel P. Huntington; Who Are We

The various peoples of the world may find the political processes of American government difficult to comprehend, but never uninteresting. They may believe, as General William T. Sherman did in advising his friend Ulysses S. Grant to stay away from Washington, that it is a Aden of thieves. But it is also a place where men and women of good will work tirelessly to serve their nation. To know America is to examine its brightness and its darkness. Good and evil are part of the fabric of American life because these factors are part of the fabric of human existence everywhere. Indeed, it was President Ulysses S. Grant who said, I am glad to say that while there is much unblushing wickedness in the world, yet there is a compensating goodness in the soul.

Black and white photo of Ulysses S. GrantWhile there is much unblushing wickedness in the people of this nation, there can be found in the American character and soul an abundance of a compensating goodness too. Perhaps the measure of a people can be ascertained by the quality of the ideals that they stand for, that they seek in others, that they recriminate themselves for not upholding. The health of America is determined by the degree of devotion and practice it manifests regarding its most precious principles.

Displaying the United States is offering a look at a living organism that has changed from its founding in 1776 to its centennial in 1876 and to its bicentennial in 1976 and, one may be assured, will be changed from the present to its tri-centennial in 2076. No matter what changes occur in its landmass or its demographics, the country has been and most likely will remain a religiously devout and hardworking nation striving to promote peace, justice, and freedom for all.