To Preach His Own

June 9, 2019   •   By Wendy Willis

Become America

Eric Liu

ON NOVEMBER 12, 2016, while I was still sitting at home nursing a strong case of post-election shock and grief, Eric Liu and his wife and collaborator Jená Cane and the team at Seattle-based Citizen University hosted their first Civic Saturday, an event they call “a civic analogue to church” that featured songs and readings and poems, culminating in what Liu refers to as a “civic sermon.” Though they expected around 40 people to turn up, more than 200 people attended. And then they were off, and Civic Saturdays became a regular program.

Eric Liu’s new book, Become America, consists of 19 civic sermons, delivered between November 12, 2016 and August 4, 2018, mostly in Seattle, but also in Chicago and Nashville and New York City and Atlanta and Des Moines. It was a bold and somewhat anachronistic decision to adopt the framework of religious services so directly and to characterize these pieces as “sermons.” But sermons they are. They are not essays read aloud, with all the quavering and digressions inherent in contemporary essays. And as such, they do not have a question at their center. At one point, a question may have motivated them. But that question has long since been answered, and an answer is at the heart of each sermon.

Here, I must disclose that I know Eric Liu and consider him a friend. I’ve visited Civic University. I’ve given a civic sermon myself. But I am just not very good at it. Maybe it is because I am a Gemini or because I am evenly divided between poet and lawyer, but I am unable to muster the kind of clear thinking and moral persuasiveness that Eric Liu’s sermons emanate.

Liu, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School and a former Bill Clinton speechwriter, knows how to put an argument together. But I don’t mean to suggest that the pieces — the sermons — are gloating or self-righteous. In fact, they are often deeply self-implicating, with Liu calling himself to task alongside his congregants, alongside his fellow citizens. As he put it in a sermon entitled “Fear and Hoarding”:

I believe that the reason to take inventory and then responsibility is not to absolve oneself of guilt or to indulge in charity. The reason why we must face and deconstruct compounded power and privilege is so that the entire society does not come crashing down around us. This is not altruism. It is self-interest properly understood.           

There is a fundamental decency at the core of the sermons, an impulse to call us to our best selves, both individually and collectively. But there is no mushy cry for civility or plaintive whimper of “why can’t we all just get along?” In fact, the steely spine of Liu’s stance is a reminder that though we are a country of high ideals, we are most certainly not a country that has ever lived up to them. Liu’s definition of “progressive” is “one who believes that American life is about closing the gap between our stated ideals and our actual condition, rather than being resigned to the status quo.” And in one of the most memorable sermons, “A Great Awakening,” delivered in Seattle on April 8, 2017, Liu asks:

What’s the difference between a promise you’ve never kept and a lie? At what point does a failure to deliver become not just an omission or a condition of regrettable tardiness, but an act, an act of malicious deceit?

That, my friends, is the American question.

Again and again, Liu returns to the wide gap between the promise of America and the reality, a gap that often harbors inequity, injustice, and bigotry. He quotes Carl Schurz, the 19th-century Senator from Missouri, as saying: “My country when right to be kept right, when wrong to be set right.” That, Liu concludes, is the “Golden Rule of Citizenship.”

The sermons — like their religious analogues — draw from a range of texts read aloud during the service. They predictably lean on foundational documents — the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers — but they also turn to the works of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, historian and writer W. E. B. Du Bois, and novelist Ann Patchett, among many others. They also refer to plays and symphonies and poems. And sometimes even to baseball. The sermons are skillfully woven and deploy a range of tones from the rhetorical to the intimate. But perhaps because I was not in the room to witness their delivery, the ones I find most memorable are those that that offer glimpses of Liu himself, the ones that give a sense of the sensibility behind the almost desperate quest for a kind of political rectitude.

The most telling of those moments came on the set of an interview by conservative media personality Glenn Beck. During the months that Liu was delivering these sermons, he had begun a friendship with Beck, who was beginning to feel some responsibility for the toxic stew that is American political discourse. As Liu tells it, Beck did not regret his positions per se, but rather his part in amping up the rhetoric to DEFCON 1. As part of this reset of tone — if not of content — Beck took to interviewing people like Liu on his show.

During a wide-ranging conversation, Beck asked Liu: “What are you afraid of?” Liu first answered from his talking points — about his fears for the republic, about his worry that we were witnessing the next collapse of the Roman Empire. But Beck pressed him, and Liu went deeper:

I told him that my father had died suddenly when I was twenty-two and that I have lived most of my adult life with a fear that none of this adds up; that life is random and cruel and purposeless. And this fear has been a motor force, driving me to make meaning and to make something that’ll outlive me.

That urgency of meaning-making, personally, civically, morally, infuses the book. And Liu’s starting point is almost always the same: know your own mind. As he puts it in the third sermon, given on December 17, 2016, “To govern oneself means figuring out exactly what you believe and why. Doing this is hard. It will illuminate how challenging it is to apply your beliefs evenhandedly. It’ll also reveal what principles you won’t ever sacrifice for personal gain.” A page later, he writes: “To govern yourself is to know yourself morally.” That knowledge, as he sees it, is essential to effective and ethical citizenship. And he throws himself into it, sometimes a little fiercely:

I am not a practicing Christian. I am not a practicing Jew. I am not a practicing Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu. I am not a practicing atheist either. I am a practicing citizen of the United States. I know my own mind. I know what part I have inherited from being Chinese, what part I have inherited from being American, and what part I have inherited from being Chinese American. I know what I believe and why. I know how to put those beliefs into action. And I know how to amend those beliefs and actions, as the evidence of my eyes and yours gives me to see the right.

What a relief it is to find a voice laced with such clarity. It is so contrary to the craven muddle we find ourselves immersed in most of the time — the id, with its ever-shifting allegiances, run amok. Eric Liu’s commitment to searching, to clear thinking, to moral citizenship is a port in the storm.

And yet, that very clarity and forthrightness raises a question for me. Or maybe it is more of a longing for Liu to go one step further. If you were to ask me what is missing from American democracy, I would answer almost identically to how he answers: a common creed, shared purpose, connections to our fellow citizens.

Liu describes his decision to embrace the trappings of religion like this:

A religion provides a moral framework for choice and an ethical standard for action. A religion provides shelter and respite from the suffering that suffuses human life. A religion offers a source of purpose and explanatory power in a world whose motor force is randomness. A religion provides a community and a set of rituals that root a rootless soul and that challenge the individual to be bigger than herself and her ego. A religion enshrines love and thus makes hope and human flourishing possible. A religion gives tangible institutional shape to an unseen spirit of connection and interdependence.

That’s an admirable religion, but not a very religious one. I am intrigued by the idea of a civic religion. And yet, if we’re going to build on the scaffolding of faith — the gravitas of it, the rituals — we’ve got to grapple with the mysteries, and with longing and grief and mortality. In all that commitment to know one’s own heart and mind, the civic religion Liu promotes is preoccupied with the virtuous, but not with the sacred. Not with the mysterious. Not with the unexplainable forces that move humans and the world around us. Not with the miraculous or the capricious. Not with awe or wonder or terror.

It’s not surprising that I would be looking for the sublime. Liu’s basic sensibilities are Yankee Protestant while mine are superstitious Catholic. His patron saint is Emerson. Mine is Dante. I just don’t think we can cleave the moral and mysterious quite so cleanly. If we are to lay claim to meaning and belonging and respite for weary souls, mystery is in the room and must be attended. And yet, these sermons come right up to the chasm of the sacred but rarely look in. What is it that lurks in that deep well?

I suspect some of what we might find is the randomness and entropy that Liu battles against with his exhortations to “govern ourselves.” But I also suspect that the darkness might harbor some fertile secrets. If we were to embrace mystery and paradox a little more, we might be better able to face the terrible grace that left us with some of the world’s most beautiful songs of freedom wielded by generations of imperfect and racist Americans. And we might find that living in a perilous world requires not just moral rectitude but an acknowledgment that we sometimes don’t know our own minds, that sometimes we can’t know them because we are mortal and fearful and buffeted by the invisible winds of a wild and ungovernable universe.

I understand the call to order in these difficult and confusing days for the country. So, I suppose it made sense for Liu to put caution tape around the ineffable, to hold us back from that which might be terrible and terrifying. But we are stronger now. And Saturday comes every week. So maybe in his next set of sermons, once in a while, he will invite the mystery to reveal its fearsome face.


Wendy Willis's most recent book is These are Strange Times, My Dear. She is the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a global network of organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public engagement.