Walter Brueggemann: Bonds of Affection…Once More

I recently wrote an exposition of the phrase from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, “the bonds of affection.” Lincoln hoped that those “bonds of affection” would override the eagerness for war. I considered how Lincoln’s phrase was explicated in the poetry of Walt Whitman, and concluded that the recovery of such “bonds” is now urgent among us.

Since I wrote that piece, I have become aware of two books that in very different ways explore Lincoln’s phrase amid our ongoing national history.  My purpose here is to call attention to these two titles. I do so because it is evident that all such bonds that make our democratic society workable are now among us frayed almost beyond recognition.

Book 1: Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America, by Matthew Holland

The first of these two books has the title, Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America—Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln, written by Matthew Holland (2007). Holland takes up in turn the words of these three leaders who shaped the formation and definition of the United States. He shows how among them there is both commonality and major differences:

At the height of their influence, all three figures delivered a seminal speech appealing to certain communal bonds of affection which they argued were essential to a stable, flourishing polity. In attempting to draw out and sustain these bonds of affection, each leader consciously worked to channel some understanding of Christian love—what the New Testament calls “charity” (I Cor. 13:13)—into a central civic, rather than strictly religious virtue. In doing so, they helped establish a unique and important strain in the American political tradition… (p. 5).

This shared appeal to “charity” is rooted in the Greek New Testament word, agape, that concerns love of God and love of neighbor. As the term was variously used, however, its meaning was adapted, mostly in a departure from the meaning it had in the New Testament. Even as he appreciates the common use of the term “charity,” Holland is candid in identifying sustained resistance to the conclusion that such “charity” could be generative in civic society:

Machiavelli’s political realism, Bacon’s scientific materialism, Locke’s philosophical liberalism, Freud’s therapeutic justice, and Nietzsche’s radical skepticism of any traditionally understood moral norms all remain exceptionally strong influences in our post-Christian present. Together they form—whatever their differences—a most imposing barrier for charity to play any meaningful part in the formation of an important civic ideal (12).

After this acknowledgment, nonetheless, Holland goes on to consider how appeal to such “charity” might be an effective civic effort, as even George W. Bush could appeal to a “compassionate conservatism.”

The first of these three leaders identified by Holland is John Winthrop, longtime governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630 Winthrop delivered a speech (sermon) as the Arbella moved into the harbor, a speech that Holland terms “America’s first great speech” (p. 27). In his address, Winthrop unapologetically appealed to the New Testament notion of agape (“charity”) that he took as the foundation of all civic virtues. He voiced a strong sense of divine providence that supported the founding of the colony, and insisted that “charity” is a required practice in response to the faithful generosity of divine providence. Holland opines that Winthrop, in his exposition, drew upon an earlier Christian Dictionary that asserted that charity is,

that affection of love which moves us to hold our neighbors dear, and to desire and seek their good in everything which is dear unto them, and that for Christ and his sake, according to the will of God (p. 45).

What is most striking in Winthrop’s articulation is the ready appeal to the governance of God in civic affairs, and the insistence that agape was the appropriate response to the generosity of God. Winthrop said and believed that the will of the providential God was at work among the colonialists and that this same God summoned the people to the work of “charity.”

When we come to Holland’s second case, Jefferson, matters have changed decisively. Jefferson will no longer appeal to Christian doctrine, and will allow for “divine providence” in only the most generic and formal way.  His bent toward a “natural” deism precluded any serious appeal to the substance of Winthrop’s address. Thus in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson does not appeal to divine governance or guidance, but to the right time in the course of human events for human initiative. The combat to which the colonialists are summoned by Jefferson is not to the purpose of God but to the loyalty for and with each other. Jefferson does indeed urge the practice of ”charity” for the sake of the democracy. But this “charity” is quite different from that of Winthrop and concerns community solidarity without reference to the deity.

Being informed by the previous work of James Madison, Jefferson eventually could insist that the democracy depended upon mutual affection:

As time marched on, Jefferson himself stepped up to say how necessary national bonds of affection are to sustain liberal American democracy. At one point, he even turned to Christianity in some form to try to refashion a national character apparently so lacking in mutual affection as to threaten his cherished aim of a model natural liberty (122).

It seems, however, that every time we may make such an interpretation of Jefferson, we must promptly retract or modify. Thus Holland judges:

But even here, it must be stressed that Jefferson never fully embraced any traditional version of charity. Virtually all traditional biblical interpretations of caritas emphasize that man’s love of God and neighbor is only made possible, and becomes obligatory, by God’s first loving man…Since Jefferson never accepted the divinity of Christ or the doctrine of atonement, God’s graceful and obliging love is explicitly absent from his ideal of caritas (135).

While Jefferson primarily appealed to classical tradition in the Declaration, Holland observes:

But surely there is also something of the agapic in this rhetoric. The Book of John records that on the night of his Last Supper, Jesus meets with his apostles and discourses on many things, including a vital emendation to his previous teachings on charity. That night he gives his disciples a “new commandment” revising the old commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Now, he says, the principle is “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34) (p. 119).

Thus we can see how Winthrop’s legacy of divinely rooted agape lingers for Jefferson, as it would continue to linger for the democracy long after Jefferson. Jefferson nevertheless gives voice to a general uneasiness about connecting the dots too clearly from God’s providence to the working of democracy. He is, by the end of his work, finally aware that the entire enterprise requires “affection,” or democracy becomes impossible. In such a way, Jefferson surely prepares the way for Lincoln’s classic articulation.

In important ways, Lincoln reiterates the ambivalence of Jefferson. On the one hand, he knows that mutual affection is the ground of a viable democracy. On the other hand, not unlike Jefferson, he is most reluctant to make any direct theological claims or connections, as his own stance is very close to an appreciative agnosticism. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois (January 27, 1838), Lincoln put his accent on obedience to the law, all law, even bad law. In a statement that seems anticipatory of our insurrection on January 6, Lincoln could say in that address:

There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law…Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment…While the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation…But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it (33, 35).

At the end of his speech he declared:

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in the future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws (36).

As he matured in his presidential authority, Lincoln became more willing to talk of the governance of God that had a more biblical ring. In his First Inaugural Address, he could speak of the urgency of the “bonds of affection” as indispensable for democracy.  Concerning his Emancipation Proclamation, Holland observes:

The actual words of the Emancipation Proclamation may indeed be considered morally vapid, but the process that produced those words was governed by agapic ideals, running from heartfelt compassion for human slaves to a devout desire to follow the will of God. The document is, for Lincoln, a clear civic expression of his love for man and God articulated in the most careful way given the political and constitutional constraints he honored. It is an early political expression of Lincoln’s new charity—one that sutures a soulful desire to act in concert with divine direction to an already acute care for his fellow human beings, all of whom (free and slave, North and South) he regarded as naturally entitled to liberty and all of whom, including himself, were obligated to follow the laws of the land—especially constitutional law (pp. 211-212).

In this judgment he had behind him the model of “Tom” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin of whom Holland writes:

Tom’s deep wellspring of pure love for God and others inspires in him a malice-free, suffering patience in the face of Southern injustice, yet by having their own Christian sentiments of human compassion broadened and deepened by Tom’s example…That the charity of Stowe’s influential novel closely prefigures that of Lincoln’s best speech and final moments suggests that a potent and complex sense of Christian love was vital in leading America into and then out of its bloodiest conflict, the national survival of which capped the creation of American democracy (167).

All of this development in Lincoln’s thought culminates in his Second Inaugural Address that ends in a ringing summons of “charity for all” in order that there may come a lasting and just peace among the nations. Holland concludes of this address:

A profound reverence for God, an earnest desire to be in harmony with him—sacral expressions of agape’s command to love God—abound in this address more than in any other presidential inaugural, maybe any other presidential speech of any kind. A willingness to forgive an enemy, an active and heartfelt sense of compassion for human suffering—moving expressions of agape’s command to love neighbor as self—similarly stand out here above all other presidential rhetoric…The caritas of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural interdicts a spirit of hatred and revenge on both sides and elicits a miraculous response of forgiveness and benevolence, undoubtedly helping to rekindle the “bonds of affection” he pleaded for in his First Inaugural (234-235).

In the end, we have come nearly full circle to Winthrop’s affirmation, though it is unmistakable that Lincoln’s usage of such rhetoric is much less than a full embrace of Christian claims. He could indeed affirm “civic religion,” but he would not fully accommodate exclusionary confessional claims. More recent experience has taught us that when faith claims become confessional in civic discourse, they inevitably become exclusionary and divisive. Given this reality as well as their own theological reticence, Jefferson and Lincoln refused full articulation of such claims, though it is equally clear that they made a more general appeal to precisely such claims.

Book 2: Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism, edited by John Bodnar

From the soaring rhetoric of these three figures, the second book I mention, Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism edited by John Bodnar (1996), takes us “down and dirty” into the realities of American politics. This book is a collection of essays by a variety of scholars who explore particular themes that constitute their research specialties. This collection is wide ranging, but nevertheless focuses on two general observations:

First, the notion of “bonds of affection” is a highly contested matter, with rivals seeking to occupy for themselves general civic claims.

Second, each particular advocate for “bonds of affection” sought not only the common good, but at the same time, also a particular advantage for their party or cause:

Our bonds of affection have always been subjected to complex interpretations. The earliest view of a virtuous nation of equals gave way by the late nineteenth century to a dream of a powerful nation rooted in the desires of powerful men and women who supported it for order and moral certainty at home and in the world…In this version true patriots were often represented as male warriors…Because all people and groups are susceptible to the attractions of power and justice, and because both coexisted in the language of patriotism, its appeal frequently crossed class, ethnic, regional, and gender borders and took unexpected turns. Citizens used patriotism for good and for malice. Thus this history of patriotism cannot be confused with our society’s endless call for patriotism by voices that are more often partisan than they appear (11-12).

In order to exhibit the wide variations and aggressive appeals for “bonds of affection,” I will mention some of the topics explored in this generative collection:

The settlement of hostilities after the Civil War was a hope for Lincoln, “with malice toward none and charity for all.” Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, “Blood Brotherhood”: The Racialization of Patriotism, 1865-1919,” explores the post-war struggle and sees that race was a defining factor in the settlement:

The GAR used a language of consensus, but beneath claims to a universal and inclusive Americanism, racial divisions deepened (69).

Appeal to “the Lost Cause” helped to shape the ideology of the New South and entrenched racism into the political memory of patriotism.

Andrew Neather, “Labor Republicanism, Race, and Popular Patriotism in the Era of Empire, 1809-1914,” considers the impact of labor (and labor unions) on the meaning of patriotism. Labor leaders sought to equate Americanism with support of unions, and for a time were successful in this equation. But Neather also recognizes the vexed nature of that patriotism:

Race created similar contradictions at the heart of labor republicans’ formulations of citizenship and patriotism. Racial ideology was played out politically in the context of battles to exclude workers of color from unions and to ban Asian immigrants. All the railroad brotherhoods and most AFL unions routinely excluded African Americans, Latinos, and Asians (87).

Stuart McConnell, “Reading the Flag: A Reconsideration of the Patriotic Clubs of the 1890s,” reports on the struggle for patriotism at the end of the nineteenth century, especially given the rise of nativism. The upshot was an uneasy convergence of nativism, middle-class consciousness, and patriotism. McConnell describes the tension between an “ideology of sameness” and an “ideology of obligation” (105). The ideology of sameness that long prevailed was determinative of membership in state and in society:

National loyalty was mediated through ethnic and class hierarchies, with certain groups privileged to dictate the terms of entry to others. The ideology was one of ethnic and class similarity. Americanism was defined by such things as light skin, English-language ability, “Anglo-Saxon” ancestry, and social position in the established middle class (117-118).

The ideology of obligation asked what citizens owed to each other. But it is the ‘ideology of sameness” that was more persuasive, so much so that McConnell can conclude:

The patriotic clubs of the 1890s set in motion the process of narrowing national loyalty to the brackish channel in which it now runs. If we are seriously to rethink the meaning of national loyalty, then we must recover some of the complexity that was there before (119).

Kimberly Jensen, “Women, Citizenship, and Civic Sacrifice: Engendering Patriotism in the First World War,” explores the role of women in the sustenance of American democracy. The rising legitimacy of women as public players has been a long, slow process, often connected to women’s participation in war. Their participation has served to accent the point of sacrifice; at the same time such a gradual expansion of the role of women has regularly been a significant challenge to the status quo:

The woman at arms threatened gender relations and women’s roles in America at the same time that she symbolized their changing status (156).

Robert Westbrook, “In the Mirror of the Enemy: Japanese Political Culture and the Peculiarities of American Patriotism in World War II,” chronicles the shameless treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Even such a distinguished journal as The Christian Century joined in the silly caricature of the Japanese and their “emperor worship” (217). Westbrook opens his essay with these words:

There is nothing like a war to concentrate the minds of citizens on the meaning of patriotism, national identity, and political obligation” (p. 211).

Unfortunately that “concentration” had sadly negative outcomes.

Wendy Kozol, “‘Good Americans’: Nationalism and Domesticity in Life Magazine, 1945-1960,” traces the cultural development, in the wake of World War II, of the notion of “good Americans,” as those who fit readily into patriarchal social arrangements, supporting, in the home, the work of men in the economy.  Richard Nixon as Vice President notably characterized the new immigrants who arrived in the US as “the kind of people who make good Americans” (241). Kozol observes:

The photo essay [concerning the Csillag family in Life magazine] encodes patriarchal values central to some of the most prevalent hegemonic narratives in American culture…Other photographs of the mother shopping and the father at work similarly visualize stereotypical gender roles (241).

George Lipsitz, “Dilemmas of Beset Nationhood: Patriotism, the Family, and Economic Change in the 1970s and 1980s,” considers Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who worked at “recovery” from the “Vietnam syndrome” that took the Vietnam war as a failure and a cause for national shame and embarrassment. The “New Patriotism” championed US military might that was put on modest exhibit in the skirmishes in Granada and Panama. This accent led to the production of many “war movies” including Rambo with Sylvester Stallone. Lipsitz comments:

Stallone actually spent the Vietnam War as a security guard in a girl’s school in Switzerland, but like Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Dick Chaney, David Stockman, and Rush Limbaugh—all of whom conveniently avoided military service themselves—Stallone established credentials as a “patriot” in the 1980s by retroactively embracing the Vietnam War and ridiculing those who had opposed it (256-57).

Neoconservatives helped to construct a “wanna be” world that had little connection to social reality. Reagan prospered through military posturing, even though he had, in Granada, only defeated “the local police force and a Cuban army construction crew” (p. 256).

Barbara Truesdell, “Exalting “U.S.ness”: Patriotic Rituals of the Daughters of the American Revolution,” reports on the ideology and impact of the Daughters of the American Revolution who claimed for themselves a peculiarly exalted notion of patriotism that has within it the seeds of denigration of many other citizens. Truesdell observes of the posturing of the DAR:

Within this symbolic cultural matrix, civil religion connects hegemonic ends and more intimate realms of experience through vernacular images and ideas…and provides the populace with the illusion that the right forces are in control. Alliance with hegemonic power bestows reflected power on the women who serve it and lends transcendent meanings to the members’ everyday lives and to their vision of their roles in American society (275).

I have taken so long and given so much attention to detail in this collection because I believe it is a most useful commentary on our “bonds of affection.” It is a shock to plunge from the noble, stately rhetoric of Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln into the nitty-gritty of our civic realities. This collection shows how every dimension of the “bonds of affection” has been vigorously contested over time, with one interest group or another fiercely attempting to gain advantage over another.

In the midst of this hard-fought ongoing contestation sits the church. The church is inescapably a party to this contestation, even as it lives beyond such contestation with its originary “agape-charity” textual tradition. The church is the only community that has as a part of its canon the command to “love one another” (John 13:34). And indeed, the church is the only community that has in its corpus the wondrous, too often reiterated, “love chapter” in I Corinthians 13. Imagine: this “love chapter” as a civic charter for the “bonds of affection”:

Love is patient;

love is kind;

love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;

it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice in wrong doing!

Because of its frequent use at weddings, the impact of this lyrical utterance may have become trivialized when in fact it might be a guide for the production and maintenance of civic bonds of affection. Methinks it might be food for thought to use the passage less frequently at weddings and preserve it for such important civic occasions as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. When used in that way, we may see that our “bonds of affection” require such generosity. This is surely what Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln had in mind when they spoke of “charity” and commended bonds of affection that they insisted were deeper and more elemental than our civic disputes. This may be a time when the church can faithfully insist that its tradition of agape-charity is urgent in our civic practice. Without it, the rest is simply posturing and empty rhetoric. But of course Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln all assumed and insisted that such matters were necessary practices and not empty rhetoric. Such bonds of affection are the most elemental stuff of democratic life. The church has a crucial role to play in the recovery of such charity. But the church can only perform that role when it gives up its attraction to individualized romantic sentimentalism.