03/16/2012 11:55 am ET Updated May 16, 2012

Sworn-Again Americans

What is the content of American identity? From the Revolution onward, America has had a story of great unifying force: the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, encoded in the Constitution, and embodied in amendments that made citizenship of the United States something transcendent and vital. Because our country began as an idea, the status of the citizen here has always been more than simply ministerial. It is a social contract. Citizens are promised liberty, and we, in turn, promise to earn it by sustaining it.

But talk of citizenship today is often thin and tinny. The word has a faintly old-fashioned feel to it when used in everyday conversation. When evoked in national politics, it's usually accompanied by the shrill whine of a descending culture-war mortar. Hence the debates about birthright citizenship and whether such status ought to be denied to so-called "anchor babies," mostly of Mexican descent, or the efforts to push the President of the United States out of the boundaries of American citizenship with a fervently wished-for foreign birth certificate.

When citizenship is drained of content by a commoditizing market and polarized politics, America suffers. Our ability as a people to maintain the democracy we've inherited diminishes, as does our ability to adapt to new challenges. We have to revive a spirit of citizenship if we want to remain a people.

That is why it is time now for a movement to re-Americanize Americans. This means reanimating our creed, cultivating the character needed for civic life, and fostering a culture of strong citizenship. Each of these imperatives is subject to abuse and co-optation by those who take a narrow view of what this country is. Which is why I argue that a twenty-first-century Americanization movement must be catalyzed by progressives.

I know many people on the left are suspicious of words like Americanization. To them, it can sound like a cover for white privilege and warmongering. It suggests arrogance and groupthink. But these connotations are not fixed. It is in our power to reshape them by recalling the best of America. Americanization should mean, "to keep trying to live up to our promise." Redeeming the idea of Americanization is the very kind of redemptive act that America stands for. Not "my country right or wrong," but, as the German immigrant and U.S. senator Carl Schurz said a century ago, "our country -- when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right."

A new Americanization program must be created by everyone. Government can be involved, but so must community foundations, schools, business leaders, union organizers, film and TV producers, social-media mavens. There should be a spirit of wiki to it all, of popular movement, with ideas emerging from the bottom up and not only from experts. Throughout, it should focus on three core elements of a civic religion: creed, character, and culture.

To be Americanized is first to be immersed in the tenets of our democratic faith, expressed in seminal texts, speeches, and stories, from Jefferson's time to our own. It means being comfortable telling everyone that what separates this nation from others is that it has a moral identity. Others have history and tradition. We do too, but more than anything, our nation is dedicated to a proposition. When Jefferson proclaimed the truth of human equality "self-evident," he was not recording a timeless fact; he was asserting one into being. His saying so helped make it so.

It falls on us to keep it so. To reanimate the creed we need to focus in part on revitalizing civic education in our schools. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is one advocacy group working to do this. Even though public education in America is a matter largely left to the states, there can and should be a federal requirement that the basic texts and ideas of our nation's civic creed be taught, in an upward spiral of sophistication, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade. After all, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor notes, this was the very point of creating free and compulsory public education: to make citizens.

Character. Civic character is more than industry, perseverance, and other personal virtues. It is character in the collective: team-spiritedness, mutuality, reciprocity, responsibility, empathy, service, cooperation. It is acting as if you believed that society becomes how you behave -- because it does.

The cultivation of strong citizens does not happen automatically, any more than the cultivation of healthy plants does. Developing civic character is the work of gardening -- of tending the plot. Educators need to teach not just civic facts and history but also the elements of civic character: what it means to be in union with others. Take students to serve in a church food bank, for instance, but also discuss the civic role of faith-based groups.

In government policy, cultivating civic character means adding more resources for AmeriCorps and other national service programs -- but also grounding them more explicitly in elements of American citizenship. In parenting and child rearing, it means teaching and rewarding even the smallest acts of courtesy and cooperation because they compound. In philanthropy and community life, it means creating more opportunities for adults to learn how to do democracy.

Culture. The third aspect of Americanization is introducing Americans to the patterns of our civic culture -- how we have governed ourselves, by law or custom, and lived in community over 200 years.

To teach Americanness is to celebrate the ideal and the real as one, without irony or ambivalence. It is to use a shared language in public life -- American English, with a democratic accent -- so that we may transcend unshared private histories. It is to invoke a civic religion that infuses our many narratives with common purpose.

We need to have the self-assurance to create new pageants, to invoke and remix the rituals and symbols our own way: the flag, the hymns, the oaths. We can't fear causing offense. A people scared to say the Pledge of Allegiance is nearly as unhealthy as one scared not to. What we must remember is that we get to continually reinvent and rewrite that pledge, this culture.

That's why recently I helped launch a civic-artistic project called Sworn-Again American. It mashes up aspects of a naturalization ceremony, a multicultural festival, and a revival tent to make a playful public experience in which Americans recommit to the content of their citizenship. What we should celebrate more than diversity is what we do with it. How do we bring everyone in the tent and create something together? In a twenty-first century way that activates our true potential, we all need to become sworn-again.

Progressives should be front and center in this effort. Why? The promise of American life is a promise of justice, requiring action not passivity, challenge not complacency; and is therefore progressive. The effort to nudge the country toward alignment with its stated ideals is asymptotic: We can keep halving the distance to perfection, but it remains infinitely out of reach. With the goal never fully attainable, the pursuit becomes then an act of faith, and therefore progressive. Progressivism is the belief that something "more perfect" is worth striving for.

It's time for a civic synthesis that speaks to the tension between a Western WASP inheritance and a diverse multicultural present; between words in marble and a more sordid reality; between liberty and equality; freedom from and freedom to -- because that tension is what is American. In every setting we can, progressives and conservatives must teach to the tension together. And progressives should initiate the dialectic -- because in America we always have.

American exceptionalism in this age of great tectonic shifts does not depend on our forever having the largest economy or the mightiest military. It does depend on our having the planet's most adaptive and resilient concept of citizenship, one that rises above land and blood, that commits us to a national lifetime of striving, failing, renewing, striving again to dedicate ourselves to our proposition.

We live in a great country. It's time again to get religion about it.

This article is adapted from a piece in the Spring 2012 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Click through to read the rest of the "Reclaiming Citizenship" package and other new articles by David Rieff, Larry Bartels, and others.

Eric Liu is the founder of the Guiding Lights Network and the co-author, with Nick Hanauer, of The Gardens of Democracy.