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This piece originally ran on July 2, 2011.

The following quotes come from sources that have next to nothing in common except for one tell-tale phrase:

"Although the battle for the heart and soul of our nation continues to rage, we cannot lose hope. ... By faith, we know that only God can heal America and turn our culture back to the Bible-based principles of our Founding Fathers." link

"[P]olitical worldviews compete for the soul of our nation. ... [One] view recognizes the God-given liberties in each individual. Which understands that rights do NOT come from the state but from the Creator." link

"The question of whether torture produces reliable information notwithstanding, we must ask: in trying to safeguard our lives, are we, as Americans, losing our collective soul?" link

"These unsolved Jim Crow-era crimes ... will continue to erode the soul of this nation until justice is served." link

"The soul of our nation will be seriously threatened as long as we continue to tell women and men that transformation will come ... from larger breasts, tighter brows and slimmer thighs." link

Whether you're on the right or the left, this is one phrase you might use to convey your moral indignance about the issue that irks you most. For whatever reason, you hear this phrase much more in the United States, especially around national holidays such as the Fourth of July, than elsewhere in the world.

Why is it that this same phrase is so potent across the political spectrum? And does it make any sense?

The reason the phrase resonates is that it heightens the consequences of opposing your argument. Disagree with someone invoking "the soul of our nation" and you're morally negligent. In today's public square of partisan shouting, the rhetoric matches the climate.

Of course, it is true - or should be - that we have common moral convictions and responsibilities in a civic and not just private or religious sense, and that we hold and carry out these convictions together as citizens.

Still, I can think of a few reasons to flag this phrase - pun intended - as problematic:

• Its overuse, which the opening examples only begin to show, not only drains the phrase of its potency and meaning but might well reflect rhetorical laziness. By now it's a culture wars cliche.

• It bumps up against the wall of separation between church and state. The church makes its claims in moral terms, the state in civic terms. Asking one to do the other's job causes problems.

• It anthropomorphizes the nation. A person can have a soul, but can a nation? Aren't people's souls unique, unlike a fuzzy, collective, common soul?

• Why would a collective soul prefer a particular nation? All of the above quotes appeal to values (liberty, equality, justice, etc.) that everyone would agree are universal to all human beings. Why say they apply only to human beings in the United States?

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