Disregard for the law, contempt for the “sober judgment of courts,” and outrages committed by mobs—these are signs of political illness, threats to “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” highlighted by Abraham Lincoln as early as 1838. When Lincoln warned of these symptoms in his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, he also prescribed an antidote: civic religion based on “a reverence for the Constitution and laws.” America in 2022 once again shows these symptoms, but Lincoln’s antidote is in short supply.
To revive our civic religion, Americans can borrow a practice from the Jewish holiday of Shavuot—the Feast of Weeks. It is a study ritual that Americans can convert into a festive encounter with our country’s foundational ideas.
Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is traditional for Jews on the eve of Shavuot to stay awake all night learning Jewish texts. The study can be solitary, in pairs or study groups, or in lectures. It is intellectually enriching and socially fun. Usually-quiet neighborhoods buzz with activity deep into the night as celebrants stroll between lectures, see friends, and compare notes on insights they have picked up. At daybreak, the students of Shavuot Eve become worshipers, migrating from study halls to synagogues for holiday prayers. Taken together, the studying and worship demonstrate the Jewish people’s recommitment to their covenant with God and his Law.
Recently, especially in Israel, secular Jews have also participated in Shavuot Eve study. They may not focus on religious texts, but they attend lessons on Jewish history, debate in public policy salons, and stage music concerts (though Jewish religious law prohibits such concerts during the holiday). Secular Jews have transformed a religious ritual into a civic one that highlights texts and cultures, religious and secular, that have sustained the Jewish nation for millennia.
Americans could benefit from their own version of Shavuot Eve—an annual rite of rededication to America’s principles through the reading (and rereading) of foundational texts.
Call it “Founding Night.” Once a year, bars, cafes, think tanks, and museums could stay open late into the night for lectures or texts study. Topics may range from one of the Federalist papers to the role of churches in early American political life and the music of that era. Love and veneration can also be expressed through criticism. Sessions could cover the founders’ accomplishments and sins, and their deliberations on slavery and the Native American tribes. Throughout the night people could drop into music concerts, receptions, and parties happening around town. Coffee would flow. It would be non-partisan. Founding Night could host a wide range of viewpoints while still being a clear celebration of the spirits of 1776 and 1787.
Founding Night could aim to revive a broadly-shared American identity. Only 15 percent of the country now “strongly agrees” that “Americans have a lot in common with each other.” And yet we have a common inheritance—the outlook expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It is, as Lincoln called it, the electric cord that links the hearts of all liberty-loving Americans.
The elevated aspirations embodied in those documents—though not always respected by Americans—are a complex thing of beauty that has had the power to bind into a single nation the shards of numerous peoples. E pluribus unum, “from many, one.” That thing of beauty should not be neglected or hidden, but held up for examination, criticism, admiration, and inspiration.
Our country’s survival depends on civic education. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) states that “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” is necessary for preserving free government and the blessings of liberty. In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton invites the public “to deliberate” on the new Constitution. Good government, he wrote, should not be left to “accident and force,” but should be attained by “reflection and choice.” One of the proper aims of education, Thomas Jefferson wrote, is to “instruct the mass of our citizens in their rights, interests, and duties.”
Americans from diverse political backgrounds would benefit from heeding Hamilton’s call for deliberation and debate. An annual event like Founding Night would occasion constructive disagreement. Funding should come from left- and right-wing contributors. Programming should be hosted by progressive and conservative institutions. The point is to celebrate that, regardless of political outlooks that rightly divide us, we are committed to the national covenant embodied by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
An annual Founding Night might have broad appeal. Books on America’s founding by Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, and others are often bestsellers. Hamilton is one of Broadway’s most popular shows. Even so, one might start humbly, piloting the night in a single city. That is how the Shavuot Eve study ritual began, first among a few rabbis in the sixteenth-century Middle East before “democratizing”—that is, spreading to the general publics of Jewish communities across Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Washington, D.C., would be an ideal place to start. The institutions headquartered there are those that Founding Night would aim to preserve. As for when, there’s the eve of July Fourth, or the annual Constitution Week, September 17-23, which Congress first authorized in the 1950s, marking the anniversary of the 1787 decision to send the new U.S. Constitution to the states for approval. A temperate autumn Saturday night could draw participants to dozens of programs for all ages, stretching from the White House to Dupont Circle. Founding Night could then later be easily adopted at any scale anywhere in the country.
The event need not last until dawn, but it should conclude with an assembly for all its participants in the spirit of e pluribus unum. A public reading of a foundational text—similar to the way Shavuot Eve studies culminate in the morning with a recitation of the Ten Commandments—could mark the end of the night. Civic leaders with divergent views could be asked to read sections of the text, as congregants are honored in blessing and reading the weekly Torah portions in synagogue.
Founding Night would remind our communities that only an awake citizenry can preserve the principles that offer the blessings of liberty to all Americans.
This article first appeared in First Things on June 2, 2022, with the title, “Proposing a New Ritual for America’s Civic Religion.”