Rituals of the Good Society:

The American Civil Society Project


Mission

The mission of the American Civil Society Project is threefold: First, to revitalize a sense of public belonging, public commitment, and public good. Civil religion can bring together citizens from diverse backgrounds, histories, and regions at appointed times and places. It can engage symbols and rituals that inspire a commitment to each other, to the public good, and to the entire society across diverse lines and identities. The aim is to commit ourselves as citizens from diverse backgrounds and histories and regions to each other and to the society, renewing our stake in protecting and promoting the good of all. It is to develop the ideas, practices and habits that will inspire citizens to build a truly representative democracy where the human rights of all flourish, and equality of opportunity is celebrated and enshrined. Finally, it is to conceive and propose rituals and habits that may be the basis of experiments in creating the good American society, a society in which citizens come to feel a renewed commitment to the public good and the happiness of all – an unshakeable moral commitment to each other and to a common future.


Practice 

This project will prepare the intellectual, cultural, and psychosocial foundations for new American civil society practices.

First, this will include the telling and retelling of stories to reflect and expand the inclusion of all American voices and experiences. It is a process of coming to identify all voices and stories as American ones that we all identify with, a process of establishing within the mind of Americans and American communities the actual lived experience of “out of many, one” – E Pluribus Unum.

Second, it is an exploration of how to stimulate the recommitment as Americans to our founding values and principles of justice and equality. The project will explore how to re-envision these values for the present and future via the best science and the largest array of American experiences and voices.

Third, it will explore educational practices through which new habits of thought and behavior can be formed, or a way to inculcate an educational system that culminates in a profound commitment of graduates to justice and liberty for all, not just as an American platitude but a profound ethical belief.

Finally, the practice will include exploration of a renewed civil religion through the formation of new habits of thinking, feeling, and acting. The social sciences, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, and various therapeutic modalities suggest that certain affects and cognitive habits can build a better and safer society. The new brain sciences also offer insights into refashioning and inspiring more group belonging that is fully inclusive and democratic rather than based on the domination and exclusion of some by others. Rituals and habits of individuals and whole cultures play a key role in the formation of the good human being and the good society. They can foster the kind of social belonging and commitment that enable nationwide and local creative problem solving to flourish.  Moreover, a commitment to science; to rational, scientifically-informed solutions; to social and public health and other common problems ought to be publicly articulated and symbolically embraced. But conceiving of and promoting those habits is hard work and takes a collective effort.

The task is to work together through compassionate listening to our great diversity as a nation, together with the power of reasoning among those who are listening and studying together. We need to revisit the emerging best practices of global peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and compassionate reasoning, and then direct their lessons to the troubled United States.

The project’s members will think through concrete recommendations of new or renewed American rituals, practices, and symbols to induce the creation and recreation of the good society, but one of unprecedented diversity and cleansing of past wrongs. These recommendations will be subjected to the scrutiny of peacebuilding and social change practitioners who work across the globe for justice and peace, for healing and reconciliation, and for sustainable social change.

With this intention and methodology, we will gather great thinking and compassionate analysis of the American situation and then subject these explorations to the experience of practitioners of human change – from psychologists, social workers, and doctors to practitioners of peacebuilding the world over.


Intellectual Foundations

There is an urgent need to steer American society in a less hateful and more just direction. This project takes up the time-tested value of civil society traditions and rituals to promote the good in the affective, cognitive, and normative habits of American society as a whole. The United States has welcomed immigrants, declaring itself a “nation of immigrants” and celebrating that welcome as the very symbol of America in the Statue of Liberty and the Emma Lazarus poem at its base. Yet our history is paradoxical and deeply conflicted, for the legacy of the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of Africans and African-Americans haunts us to this day in ongoing racism, continuing institutionalized oppression, and an economic prosperity still partly beholden to systemic exploitation of these and other vulnerable groups.

The contradictory legacy and ongoing divisions reverberate in American political life and institutions, cutting to the heart of the American story and muddying the American ethos. They have left the country bereft of strong commitments that bind us all to each other, to the common good, and to basic principles of justice and humanity. It is no surprise that the U.S. in particular has fostered and nurtured a philosophy of hyper-individualism, which in combination with a recently intensified racism is locking in a society based on inherited status and wealth. The embrace of hierarchies of race and financial caste are inflaming tendencies toward resistance to the public good and even to governance itself. The strengthening of this libertarian tendency together with the continuing presence of white supremacy has resulted in a decline in civic identification and a loss of a sense of belonging in and responsibility to the American community.

There has also been an erosion of identification with basic principles of justice, equal rights and responsibilities, as well as equality of opportunity and freedom.  These are principles at the heart of America’s founding ideals, those that Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “a promissory note” to future generations.  They both inspire our patriotic love for the best in America, our ongoing hope to work toward coming ever closer to a founding vision of justice, while also connecting us to all of humanity’s universal human rights.

The purpose of a renewed civil religion is threefold: First, to revitalize a sense of public belonging, public commitment, and public good. Civil religion can bring together citizens from diverse backgrounds, histories, and regions at appointed times and places. It can engage symbols and rituals that inspire a commitment to each other, to the public good, and to the entire society across diverse lines and identities. The aim is to commit ourselves as citizens from diverse backgrounds and histories and regions to each other and to the society, renewing our stake in protecting and promoting the good of all.

This renewal should involve the telling and retelling of stories to reflect and expand the inclusion of all American voices and experiences. It is a process of coming to identify all voices and stories as American ones that we all identify with – E Pluribus Unum. Second, it is a recommitment as Americans to our founding values and principles of justice and equality. It is a re-envisioning of these values for the present and future via the best science and the largest array of American experiences and voices. And it should also include educative practices through which new habits of thought and behavior can be formed. Justice and Liberty for All.  Finally, a renewed civil religion should also include a public commitment to and symbolic embrace of scientific knowledge and solutions to common public problems.

We see those who claim hierarchical white racial entitlement joining with those who rationalize corruptive greed in ideologies of plutocracy flirting with fascist demagoguery.  A rampant and ruthless form of capitalism has merged with a religious quasi-nationalist approach to claim the public arena as its own and to attempt to dominate the nation with an imagined community of religious nationalist conformity, bereft of diversity and shared values across pluralist and regional lines.   We need to step up and reclaim the United States for the pluralist and multi-region nation of immigrants we are by engaging in common rituals, symbols, and ethical practices that will speak to the minds and hearts and inform the actions of each and every citizen. We need many correctives in order for citizens to build a truly representative democracy where the human rights of all flourish and equality of opportunity and justice are celebrated and enshrined.

The social sciences, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, and various therapeutic modalities suggest that certain affects and cognitive habits can protect against the dangers of fascism, and can help build a better and safer society. The new brain sciences also offer insights into refashioning and inspiring more group belonging that is fully inclusive and democratic rather than based on the domination and exclusion of some by others. Rituals and habits of individuals and whole cultures play a key role in the formation of the good human being and the good society. They can foster the kind of social belonging and commitment that enable nationwide and local creative problem solving to flourish.  Moreover, a commitment to science and to rational, scientifically informed solutions, to social and public health and other common problems, ought to be publicly articulated and symbolically embraced.

This project explores the challenge of looking at American history and thinkers, at American experience, at what we have learned from a number of disciplines focused on generating the nonviolent and just society. The task is to work together through compassionate listening to our great diversity as a nation, together with the power of reasoning among those who are listening and studying together. The goal is to conceive and propose rituals and habits that may be the basis of experiments in creating the good American society, a society in which citizens come to feel a renewed commitment to the public good and the happiness of all, moral commitment to each other, and to a common future.

There are many citizens, some academic and some not, who have spent a lifetime working with troubled peoples, people in the midst of war and genocide even, and conceived with them with extraordinary creativity how to reestablish the good society. Many societies in recent decades have emerged from a long legacy of perpetual wars and limited lifespans to create less violent societies with more coexistence among tribes, ideologies and religions. We need to revisit the best practices emerging, and then direct their lessons to the troubled United States.

We suggest an intentional process of thinking through concrete recommendations of new or renewed American rituals, practices and symbols, to induce the creation or recreation of the good society, but one of unprecedented diversity and cleansing of past wrongs. Then these recommendations need to subjected to the tests of peacebuilding and social change practitioners who work for justice and peace, for healing and reconciliation, for sustainable social change, across the globe.

With this intention and methodology, we will gather great thinking and compassionate analysis of the America situation, but then subject these explorations to the experience of practitioners of human change, from psychologists, social workers, and doctors, to practitioners of peacebuilding the world over. America needs help before it sinks further into chaos. There has been developed, however, a great deal of collective human wisdom and experience across the globe on these matters. A strong dose of humility, a moral commitment to antiracism and embrace of all, are core ingredients of this effort. Experience across the world in times of trouble suggests that this would be a wise path of innovation, consultation, and public education.


Meet the Team

Dr. Heidi Ravven is a Professor of Religious Studies and Jewish Philosophy at Hamilton College, where she has taught since 1983. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and the History of Ideas from Brandeis University in 1984. She has published on many aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy, focusing especially on Spinoza and Affective Neuroscience and on Spinoza and Maimonides. She has also published on Jewish Feminism and Jewish Ethics and on the philosophy of G.W. F. Hegel. She has been the Bates and Benjamin Chair of Classical and Religious Studies at Hamilton College and has held the Althea and Samuel Stroum Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.


The American Civil Society Project is a project of CRDC’s American Reconciliation program.