A Civic Liturgy

My friend David O’Hara writes on Facebook:

On certain days of the year I return to readings of civic importance that suit that day. It’s a political parallel to the liturgical calendar, I suppose. So on Independence Day (July 4) I read the Declaration of Independence; on MLK Day (third Monday of January) I read one of his speeches; on Constitution Day (Sept 17) I read the Bill of Rights; and so on. Most of this is a habit that’s in my head, but I’ve decided to put together a calendar I can share with others, and I’d be glad to have your suggestions for what to add. My informal rules: (1) It should be short enough to read in a few minutes. (2) It should be a significant document that ought to be read by everyone at some point. (3) It should remind us of an important idea or event that is a legal or ethical or cultural landmark that has shaped our nation, and that should help us find our bearings when we lose sight of them.

If you have suggestions, I’d like to hear them. Don’t be bound by my rules, or by my nation and traditions. What would you include? What would you gladly read aloud with your neighbors each year on a certain date? Please include the date you’d set for the reading, and tell me why that date matters.

This is an obvious nod to the liturgical tradition in which a year’s worth of sacred texts and meditations are laid out for repeated reflection, with themes that build towards a traditions’ major holidays.

I have something like this practice, and indeed I think of Facebook as trying to establish personal liturgies through its continual reminder of photos and events from each day in past years. So here are some thoughts:

  • New Year’s Day (January 1st): I like to read and reflect on habit-formation at the beginning of the year, rather than jump into making resolutions. For instance, William James’ “Habit” from The Principles of Psychology.
  • Martin Luther King Day (Third Monday in January): Usually “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” though sometimes his last speech or his “Where do we go from here?” speech.
  • President’s Day (Third Monday in February): I don’t really celebrate this holiday, though for a while I liked to read the Farewell Address. It’d be a good day to read selected Federalist Papers (I’m a fan of #9 and #10.)
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages

(I imagine the ironic points of light are muzzle flashes or bomb explosions exchanged by the putatively Just. The “irony” is that their violence is almost always unjust.)

  • Constitution Day (September 17th): This is the day to read as much of the constitution, including the Bill of Rights, as you can. But it’s also a good day to read Juan Linz’s “The Perils of Presidentialism.”
  • Election Season (Technically October and November, every two years. But when is it not election season?): The text that always inspires me during this period is Bruce Ackerman’s “The New Separation of Powers.” But that’s highly idiosyncratic.
  • Election Day (the first Tuesday after November 1st): Of course most of us spend this day reading exit polls. But perhaps it would be better to read the chapter in Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy on “Socialism and Democracy.” And  perhaps Amartya Sen’s “Democracy as a Universal Human Value” would be even more appropriate.
  • Thanksgiving (Late November): In the US we have dual duties on this day: to remember our massacre and colonization of the indigenous peoples, and to practice gratitude with friends and family. So I propose: Robert Frost’s The Gift Outright and Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Apologetic History of the Indies(I often post The Oatmeal’s comic on Las Casas to social media for a similar purpose.)
  • Christmas (December 25th): Like it or not, the US treats Christmas as a secular public holiday. And that means that everyone should watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are also irregular events that become opportunities for a civic liturgy. Like birth, marriage, and death, they don’t happen on a regular schedule but they deserve recognition in a civic liturgy.

For instance, from time to time we are called upon to serve on juries. At times like this, when it happens to me or friends, I like to share Alexis de Tocqueville’s discussion of the jury in Democracy in America. After national tragedies, I will sometimes read Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense, though I struggle with whether it lets us off too easily. After many mass shootings, I re-read Dan Kahan’s “Modeling Facts, Culture, and Cognition in the Gun Debate,” but it doesn’t seem to help.

This is far from a complete list. But I think the idea of a civic liturgy is an important one, and I’d like to see more work done filling in the calendar. A liturgy creates a shared set of texts, a shared opportunity for reflection, and perhaps even the preconditions for shared values. Join me, and David, won’t you?

(I’m going to keep coming back and updating this as I get new suggestions.)

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