The Body Politic

Tonight, I’ll chair a Spirit and Place Panel on “The Body Politic” at the Indiana Statehouse. I hope some of you can attend; for those who can’t, here are my introductory remarks.

I’d like to introduce the panel: Eric Meslin is Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Bioethics at the IU School of Medicine; Philip Goff is Associate Dean of Liberal Arts at IUPUI and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture; and Louis Galloway is Senior Pastor at 2d Presbyterian Church. I’m Sheila Kennedy, and I teach Law and Public Policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

So–What is a “body politic”? For purposes of tonight’s discussion, the body politic is best defined as a political community, a collective body of people who share allegiance to a particular government.  Or—as I like to think of it—a body politic is comprised of people who share certain norms and attitudes that have been shaped by their governing philosophy and institutions, people who share a certain Constitutional culture.

Our national motto is e pluribus unum—out of the many, one. That never has meant sameness or homogeneity—Americans have never shared a single religion, national origin, skin color, or even political philosophy. What we have shared is a certain approach to how we live together, an approach that grew out of the Enlightenment and includes a strong belief in the importance of reason, the rule of law, individual rights and political equality. Our political community makes space for all the other communities we participate in: religious communities, professional communities, social communities and so forth. A healthy political community—a healthy body politic—is essential to the health of all our other associations. And right now, the body politic isn’t doing so well.

The question our panel will consider is: what does it take to create and maintain a body politic? Are there things that citizens absolutely have to know, values they absolutely have to share? In a country as diverse as ours, what creates and sustains unum from our pluribus?

In 1987, E.D. Hirsch wrote a book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His thesis was that in order to engage in genuine communication, people need to share a basic understanding of cultural allusions—terms like “banana republic” or “academic freedom” or “Achilles heel,” that are used as short-hands to convey certain ideas common to the culture. The person who is unfamiliar with those terms, according to Hirsch, is not genuinely engaged in the conversation. Whether or not you accept Hirsch’s entire thesis, it’s hard to argue with the proposition that we need a shared understanding of basic cultural references in order to communicate. The question is: what is the minimum that Americans need to know in order to sustain a healthy body politic?

These days, if you turn on a “public affairs” television program, listen to talk radio, or attend a lawmaker’s “town meeting,” you are likely to witness the increasing stridence and incivility of what currently passes for democratic discourse.  Our elected officials seem unable to engage with each other in anything approaching a productive and mutually meaningful exchange.  Americans seem increasingly to be talking past, rather than to, each other.

On one hand, it is important to place our current “red state/blue state” hostilities in historical perspective. This country has seen periods of very significant conflict before—the Civil War, prohibition, the civil rights movement, and the turmoil of “the sixties,” to name just a few.  On the other hand, the radical pluralism that characterizes modern life—and the new technologies that bring a certain “in your face” quality to that pluralism—pose challenges that are arguably unlike those of past times.

It’s fairly obvious that the labeling and insults that increasingly dominate our media and politics aren’t communication. Communication doesn’t require an absence of argument or disagreement, but it does require that we actually hear each other, that we argue from the same basic premises or facts, that at some level, no matter how minimal, we be able to acknowledge what it is the other person is saying and understand the basis upon which that person is saying it.

Unfortunately, these days Americans seem to be living in separate realities, unable to participate in the same conversation. And in my own opinion, one of the root causes of that disconnect is a widespread lack of civic literacy and cultural competence.

I study how constitutional values operate within a diverse culture, how those values connect us to people with very different backgrounds and beliefs and make us all Americans.  That research has convinced me that an understanding of the history and philosophy of our country is absolutely critical to our continued ability to function as a body politic. That research has also convinced me that the civic literacy we need is in short supply.

Let me share an anecdote that may illustrate my concern. When I teach Law and Public Affairs, I begin with the way our particular legal framework limits our policy options, and how “original intent” guides our application of Constitutional principles to current conflicts. I usually ask students something like “What do you suppose James Madison thought about porn on the internet?” Usually, they’ll laugh and then we discuss how Madison’s beliefs about freedom of expression should guide courts faced with contemporary issues involving the internet. But a couple of years ago, when I asked a young woman—a junior in college—that question, she looked at me blankly and asked “Who’s James Madison?”

It’s tempting to dismiss this as anecdotal, but there are reams of research confirming widespread civic ignorance. A survey by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs recently asked high school students questions about the government. Twenty-eight percent could identify the Constitution as the supreme law of the land; 26% knew what we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution; 27 % could identify the two parts of the U.S. Congress; 10% knew how many justices are on the Supreme Court; and only 43% could name the two major political parties.

There’s more—much more. Only 36 percent of Americans of any age can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th graders can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution.

This is appalling. If you think about it, the choices originally made by the men who designed our constitutional architecture have shaped the culture we live in. They dictate how we think about what’s public and private, our notions of personal responsibility, and our conceptions of human rights. They frame the way we allocate collective social duties among governmental, nonprofit and private actors. In short, those initial constitutional choices created a distinctively American worldview.  Failure to understand and appreciate those initial decisions is failure to understand the structure of the world we live in; it is failure to understand the context of contemporary politics and policy.

People who have little grasp of American history or the Enlightenment roots of our particular approach to government don’t argue from within our Constitutional Culture. Look, for just one example, at current debates over gay rights. People who disapprove of homosexuality for personal or religious reasons want the government to treat gay people differently. Their arguments are based upon their views of moral behavior, usually as dictated by religious authority. Our constitution absolutely protects their right to believe and to act upon those beliefs in their personal lives—if they don’t like gay people, they don’t need to invite them to dinner; if their churches condemn same-sex marriage, they need not conduct them. But that same Constitution limits the ability of government to tell citizens how to live their lives, and it requires that government treat citizens as equals before the law.

We can argue the morality of homosexuality, or we can argue about the proper role of government in our constitutional system. Both arguments are legitimate, but they are different arguments. When person A says “the Constitution requires X” and person B responds “God doesn’t like that,” we are not having a conversation from within the constitutional culture, and we are not sustaining the body politic. We aren’t having a conversation at all—we’re just yelling past each other.

Tonight’s panel is going to wrestle with a very difficult question: what is the minimum level of knowledge—of civic and other literacy—that we should expect from members of our “body politic”? Citizens don’t need to be constitutional scholars, scientists or historians—but we can’t survive, can’t sustain the necessary cultural norms, unless they share a basic understanding of who we are and where we came from. What is the necessary content of that understanding?

What is the minimum reality we need to share in order to communicate productively and in order to create a constitutional culture?


  1. Bob–Sorry, I just got this. The panel was from 7-9 in the Senate Chambers. It was really well-attended, and there was a great discussion. Sorry you missed it!

Comments are closed.