Reverence and the Freedom to Revise

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 54-56. Used by permission.


Societies which cannot combine reverence for their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay.

In an effort to make sense of the presidential campaign, I turned to journalist James Reston’s recent autobiography, Deadline, thinking that his insights into earlier campaigns might put the 1992 race into perspective. What I found was not horse-race data about the past but a definition of wisdom taken from Alfred North Whitehead. "It is the first step in wisdom," Whitehead wrote in Symbolism, "to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the society in which they occur. . . . The art of free society consists, first, in the maintenance of the symbolic code, and secondly, in fearlessness of revision. Those societies which cannot combine reverence for their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay from anarchy or from slow atrophy."

A presidential campaign is, ideally, a time for reassessing where we are as a people—a quadrennial exercise in pulse-taking and planning. Our best leaders are those who challenge us to recall "the symbolic code" that brought us to this moment and that enables us to confront the "major advances" that threaten to undermine us.

Abraham Lincoln responded to perhaps our most traumatic social shift by eloquently calling upon our symbolic code. He did not trivialize the code for his own partisan purposes, but rather reminded people of their common bond. Lincoln possessed a religious sensibility appropriate to a pluralistic culture. He spoke a biblical and democratic language that could rally the nation to look beyond the anger and suffering brought on by civil war. In the midst of a war that had divided the nation, he called upon Americans to remember the moral center that formed their union. He appealed to what was best in their tradition.

In calling for a national day of prayer during the war, Lincoln wrote: "We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined . . . that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness."

Today, more than a century after Lincoln articulated a moral center on behalf of national reconciliation, secularity has so infiltrated our leadership and our elite institutions that presidential candidates are reluctant to employ moral language and are uncertain about any symbolic code. When they do use such language, they tend to trivialize it. In the 1988 campaign President Bush invoked the American flag in a way that trivialized that symbol, and Michael Dukakis became an object of ridicule by donning a tank-driver’s helmet—an ineffective use of an empty symbol of patriotism. In both instances the use of the symbols was demeaning both to the user and to the audience, since they were so obviously calculated political gestures.

When Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead this nation through a nonviolent civil war, he drew upon the language of the black church and on biblical images of hope and reconciliation. This language has been part of our national identity since John Winthrop challenged the Pilgrims to create a new commonwealth, the creation of which demanded a responsibility to others and to God. Winthrop’s sermon was a favorite of Ronald Reagan’s, but in praising this nation as the "city upon on a hill" Reagan conveniently ignored Winthrop’s reminder that with the gift of the new land came the burden of discipline and service and accountability to God.

Martin Luther King spoke in the Winthrop tradition when he called for an end to segregation in the 1960s. He denounced racial separation in language that appealed to our moral center, and thereby he sustained people even as he challenged them. King said, in effect, that we must change our behavior as a people, but that we can do so with the assurance that the change is consistent with God’s will and with our deepest commitments as a people.

In recent elections it has become obvious that presidential candidates are welcome to use religious language only in certain communities. Mainline churches, for the most part, have accepted the priority of secular language. They are anxious to keep religious matters separated from political issues.

Only in the black churches and in some white evangelical churches is it acceptable to link God’s purposes and demands to social issues as King did. (The Democratic candidates find their way to black churches, the Republicans to conservative white ones.) The "symbolic code" that Whitehead insisted was essential in coping with change is expressed openly only in those religious communities outside the mainstream that is dominated by the secular elite.

The 1990s will be a time of enormous shifts, processes which may "all but wreck the society in which they occur." The person chosen to lead this country into the next decade will have to be sensitive both to the demands of change and to the need to meet that change in the light of the rich symbolic code that has sustained the nation from its beginnings.