05/23/2011 11:28 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Does a Nation Have a Soul?

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.

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