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Biden and Trump Say They’re Fighting for America’s ‘Soul.’ What Does That Mean?

It is a phrase that has been constantly invoked by Democratic and Republican leaders. It has become the clearest symbol of the mood of the country, and what people feel is at stake in November. Everyone, it seems, is fighting for it.


“This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America,” Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in August at the Democratic National Convention, not long after the phrase “battle for the soul of America” appeared at the top of his campaign website, right next to his name.

“这次竞选不仅是为了赢得选票,也是为了赢得美国的人心,也可以说,是为了赢得美国的灵魂,”小约瑟夫·R.拜登(Joseph R. Biden Jr.)今年8月在民主党全国代表大会上说。那之前不久,“为美国的灵魂而战”这句话就已经出现在他竞选网站的顶部,他的名字旁边。

Picking up on this, a recent Trump campaign ad spliced videos of Democrats invoking “the soul” of America, followed by images of clashes between protesters and the police and the words “Save America’s Soul,” with a request to text “SOUL” to make a campaign contribution.


That the election has become a referendum on the soul of the nation, suggests that in an increasingly secular country, voting has become a reflection of one’s individual morality — and that the outcome hinges in part on spiritual and philosophical questions that transcend politics: What, exactly, is the soul of the nation? What is the state of it? And what would it mean to save it?


The answers go beyond a campaign slogan, beyond politics and November, to the identity and future of the American experiment itself, especially now, with a pandemic that has wearied the country’s spirit.


“When I think of soul of the nation,” Joy Harjo, the United States poet laureate and a Muscogee (Creek) Nation member, said, “I think of the process of becoming, and what it is we want to become. That is where it gets tricky, and that is where I think we have reached a stalemate right now. What do people want to become?”

“当我想起国家的灵魂时,想到的是成为的过程,以及我们想成为什么,”美国桂冠诗人乔伊·哈乔(Joy Harjo)说,她是马斯科吉(Muskogee,又名克里克[Creek])原住民族的成员。“想成为什么让问题变得不容易回答,我觉得,这是让我们目前陷入僵持局面之处。人民想成为什么?”

Ms. Harjo said the country’s soul was “at a crucial point.”


“It is like everything is broken at once,” she said. “We are at a point of great wounding, where everyone is standing and looking within themselves and each other.”


In Carlsbad, Calif., Marlo Tucker, the state director for Concerned Women for America, has been meeting regularly to pray with a group of a dozen or so women about the future of the country. The group has been working with other conservative Christian women to register voters.

在加州卡尔斯巴德市,“关心美国的女性”(Concerned Women for America)组织的负责人马洛·塔克(Marlo Tucker)一直定期跟大约十几名女性一起为美国的未来祈祷。该组织一直在与其他保守的基督教女性一起进行选民登记。

“It really comes down to what do you stand for, and what do you not stand for,” she said.


“I know this is a Christian nation, the founding fathers were influenced by the biblical values,” she said. “People are confused, they are influenced by this sensationalism, they are angry, they are frustrated. They are searching for hope again in government, they are searching for leaders who actually care for their problems.”


Framing an entire campaign explicitly around a moral imperative — with language so rooted in Christianity — has been a standard part of the Republican playbook for decades. But it is a more unusual move for Democrats, who typically attract a more religious diverse coalition.


The soul, and the soul of the body politic, is an ancient philosophical and theological concept, one of the deepest ways humans have understood their individual identity, and their life together.


In biblical Hebrew the words translated as soul, nefesh and neshama, come from a root meaning “to breathe.” The Genesis story describes God breathing into the nostrils of man, making him human.


The meaning echoes through today, in a pandemic that attacks the respiratory system and police violence against Black people crying out, “I can’t breathe.”


Homeric poets saw the soul as the thing humans risk in battle, or the thing that distinguishes life from death. Plato wrote of Socrates exploring the connection between the soul and the republic in creating the virtue of justice. For St. Augustine, who wrote “The City of God,” the city could be judged by what it loves.

荷马时代的诗人把灵魂看作人类在战斗中为之冒险的东西,或者说是区分生与死的东西。柏拉图笔下的苏格拉底在创造正义的美德时,探索了灵魂与共和政体之间的联系。在《上帝之城》(The City of God)的作者奥古斯丁眼里,可以根据之所爱来评判这座城市。

The soul of the nation is “a very ancient trope that is revived when all sorts of cultural ideas are in flux,” Eric Gregory, professor of religion at Princeton University, said. “It reveals something about the current political conversation, in times of crisis and change, a corruption of sickness.”

国家的灵魂是“一个非常古老的比喻,在各种文化观念在不断演变时,它就会复活”,普林斯顿大学宗教学教授埃里克·格雷戈里(Eric Gregory)说。“在危机与变化、病态腐败的时候,它揭示了当前政治对话中的某种东西。”

Often we stress systems and institutions, he said, but in the Trump era there has been a return to ancient concepts about the welfare of the city, where politics is about right relationships. “In ancient politics the health of society had a lot to do with the virtue of the ruler,” he said.


This year President Trump has positioned himself as the defender of a threatened Christian America under siege. “In America, we don’t turn to government to restore our souls, we put our faith in Almighty God,” he said at the Republican National Convention. Franklin Graham, one of his evangelical supporters, wrote last year that this age is “a battle for the soul of the nation,” as the original “moral and spiritual framework, which has held our nation together for 243 years, is now unraveling.”

今年,特朗普总统已将自己定位为受到围困的基督教美国的捍卫者。“在美国,我们不会求助于政府来挽回我们的灵魂,我们相信全能的上帝,”他在共和党全国代表大会上说。他的福音派支持者之一富兰克林·格雷厄姆(Franklin Graham)去年曾写道,由于“已维系了我国243年的(最初的)道德和精神框架现在正在瓦解”,这个时代是“为国家的灵魂而战的时代”。

For Mr. Biden, the soul of the nation came into focus after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., three years ago. “We have to show the world America is still a beacon of light,” he wrote at the time.


From the start, his campaign message has been one of broader morality, versus specific policy or ideology. When Mr. Biden says this is a battle for the soul of the nation, he is not using it religiously but as a synonym for character, said the presidential historian Jon Meacham, who has spoken often with Mr. Biden about the soul.

他的竞选信息从一开始就是关于更广泛的道德,而不是具体的政策或意识形态。研究总统的历史学家乔恩·米查姆(Jon Meacham)说,当拜登说竞选是为国家的灵魂而战时,他并不是在宗教意义上使用这个词,而是把它作为品格的同义词。米查姆经常与拜登讨论灵魂的问题。

“People hear it as light versus dark, service versus selfishness, Trump versus the rest of the world,” he said.


“My sense is, it is much less about an Elizabeth Warren 10-point plan, or a Bernie Sanders revolution than it is a restoration of a politics that is more familiar and not so agitating,” he said. Voters “just want somebody to run the damn thing with a modicum of efficiency and sanity.”

“我的感觉是,它涉及的与其说是伊丽莎白·沃伦(Elizabeth Warren)的十点计划或伯尼·桑德斯(Bernie Sanders)的革命,不如说是恢复一种我们更熟悉的、不那么激动人心的政治,”他说。选民们“只是希望有人能以一点效率和理智来管理这个讨厌的东西”。

But even amid the lofty questions of the soul, voters have problems they want solved, and systems they want changed.


North of Boston, Andrew DeFranza, executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, an organization that develops affordable housing, reflected on the disastrous impact of the coronavirus pandemic for many people, from essential workers to people with disabilities. The country’s soul is disoriented, adversarial and tired, he said.

在波士顿北部,开发经济适用房的海港社区伙伴组织(Harborlight Community Partners)的执行主任安德鲁·德弗兰扎(Andrew DeFranza)思索着新型冠病毒大流行对许多人的灾难性影响,从基本工作者到残疾人在内。他说,这个国家的灵魂迷失了方向,充满了对抗,而且疲惫不堪。

“I don’t think Group A is going to beat Group B and everything is going to be fine,” he said of the election. “We are eager to see political leaders at every level regardless of party demonstrate concrete, actionable plans to address these issues of inequity around health and race, and to do so in a way that is concrete and has outcomes to which they can be accountable.”


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