It is rare to hear a U.S. political party convention theme couched as a question. Conventions, for good reason, are typically oriented around statements — grand and bellicose, rallying and inspiring.
Last week, the Republican Party’s convention centered on the theme, “Make America Great Again.” This week, the Democratic Party’s theme is, “United Together.” Each is meant to galvanize the party’s base and entice voters with their vision for the United States. But what if they circled around a question? What if our political process — particularly in this poignant moment — started with a set of queries?
Instead of “Make America Great Again,” what if we asked, “What kind of America do we want to make?” What if we asked, “Why are we together?” rather than saying we’re “United Together”?
Asking these basic questions may seem silly, but it’s a powerful step we can take in such a divisive political climate, and in the midst of such a momentous election cycle. Good questions can disturb or comfort, motivate and guide — they can foster understanding and stimulate critical awareness.
Jesus knew the value of questions. Throughout his ministry, he used close to 100 different questions to provoke his followers and challengers. He confronted the hard issues of his day with queries that moved the conversation forward.
We might learn something from his example.
In this case, these questions can invite American voters to deeply contemplate what it is that is great about the U.S. and in what sense we are actually, or actually not, united.
It’s good to question what exactly it is about America’s past that is so great. In a video from The Daily Show, correspondents asked Republican National Convention-goers when America was great. Respondents answered with various eras — the early 20th century, the Revolutionary War era, the 1950s. Daily Show correspondents then replied with challenges about slavery, women’s rights, and the extirpation of indigenous peoples. The clip would be hilarious if it weren’t so plaintively accurate.
While wistfully yearning for a bygone era of America’s supposedly-significant past and making it our mission to get back there may seem harmless, it also displays remarkable ignorance and a woeful lack of historical consciousness.
Optimistic visions of America’s future that are founded on idealized constructions of America’s past overlook the presence of America’s great contradictions. The darker realities of U.S. history regarding race, religion, equality under the law, abuses of power, ethnic cleansing, and systems of oppression must be confronted with hard questions, not nostalgic gloss. This is especially true when so many of these conundrums continue to haunt us, whether we like to admit it or not.
If we are to move forward at all, we have to ask: What is it that so great about America, and what are we making of our nation today?
While looking back with rosy reminiscence can be dangerous, it is worthwhile to peer into our history. By doing so, we can rediscover our core values as a republic. Especially when we consider why we are together in the first place.
Asking why we are together as a country with so many divisions, instead of simply stating that we are “United Together,” involves a choice — one to not falsely claim our unity when divisions are palpably present in our streets, our homes, and our congressional chambers. If we are to remedy these conflicts, we have to consider what unites us in the first place. We have to ask the hard question — why do we remain united at all?
Americans are a mixed bag of plural persuasions and principles. We come from myriad spiritual, economic, social, ethnic, and political backgrounds. We cannot take our unity for granted. Asking the question, “Why are we together?” challenges us to consider and define our core values. What is the fire in the American belly that inspires us to be united together for a greater goal? Is it freedom? Equality? Democracy? Defense against tyranny and oppression? Capitalism? Strength? Independence? Righteousness? Manifest destiny? God? Family? Entertainment? What unites us? What divides us?
Conflict rises quickly when we consider these values. Capitalism and strength have made America great in some ways, but have also generated untold inequalities. Freedom is fine, except that it also permits money-obsessed pursuits of entertainment and happiness that dull our senses, fatten our self-indulgence, and replace meaningful news with infotainment. American wealth is peerless, but Jesus taught that our faith should make wealth meaningless.
In asking these questions, we’ll discover that there is no simple answer to our present spiritual, economic, social, or political angst. But our conversations over these questions will lead us deeper into discovering and articulating the deep questions that lie at the heart of our current soul-searching.
Before we can look forward with a compelling vision for America’s future, we have to confront the deep and disturbing realities of America’s past and present. Neither a false romanticism for what was nor a naive belief in the progress of humankind will do.
If the U.S. is in crisis, then we must treat it as such — we must ask the hard questions of what it means to be Americans together, today.
While questions may not serve as effective campaign platforms, they can spark a conversation and reveal what our missions, values, and visions truly are. Americans from all backgrounds and political parties should take the time to ask: What kind of America are we making, and why are we united in this together?