There is a serious gap in American culture today: We lack the unifying institutions that bring us together, after long and hard-fought debate, into one nation that can act. We ought to dust off a fundamental American unifying tradition of ancient origins and long service, now entirely missing: keeping the Sabbath; urging the whole nation to petition Providence in diverse ways but together in spirit by “remember[ing] the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
America’s Sabbath tradition embraces a wide range of Sabbath observances on Friday, Saturday or Sunday — united by the underlying conviction that to step back from daily business once each week, to separate one day and keep it holy, is a crucial part of our free and humane American civilization.
High above the floor of the Library of Congress' magnificent Main Reading Room stand eight statues symbolizing key aspects of civilization: Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law, Science and Religion. Above religion’s figure, the ancient Israelite Old Testament prophet Micah's famous exhortation is carved in gilt letters: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
In considering America's efforts to fix what is broken, it seems to us that we too easily push aside the last of Micah’s three injunctions. We spend our lives pacing vainly back and forth in the valley of business-as-usual, failing to seek higher ground and the larger view, which could go far towards re-uniting our fractured nation.
There are few better representations of a nation’s humility and dependence upon Providence than the state of its Sabbath-keeping. It’s impossible to believe that America, as a whole, takes any sort of Sabbath obligation seriously. Our careers have brought us into conversation with many religious leaders of many faiths. We’ve often had the opportunity to discuss the contradictions between what Americans believe and how we behave. Ninety percent of us have faith in God. Do we show it?
Animated discussion ensues when you raise the topic of voluntary Sabbath observance (we do not argue for a return to blue laws). We have found a widespread good understanding and deep appreciation of the value of the Sabbath, but also honest if somewhat sheepish admissions that the interviewees themselves, as well as the country, could and should do better. Often spiritual leaders have told us that as a result of our conversation, they felt moved to preach the topic from the pulpit on an upcoming Sunday!
One person in a group explained at length how, for him and his family, keeping the Sabbath day holy as our grandparents and great-grandparents did was no longer possible — because of his children's involvement in youth sports. It became apparent to all, including himself, that his arguments were embarrassingly small.
At our country’s founding, "Appeal to Heaven" flags helped to rally patriots as they walked the treacherous road of separation from England and into our unique constitutional republic, the first in history. We need that sentiment today, we need to invoke heaven’s blessings on this nation — and the need grows more acute every day as the fabric of society strains and (here and there) begins to tear. We encourage all Americans to consider something a majority of us have barely thought about for half a century, a united appeal to heaven in deed and word through a broad and consistent Sabbath-keeping.
Maybe it would help — not only in securing divine blessings but in reminding this unique nation that it is a nation and not a general assembly of warring factions. It is worth the effort.
Wayne Abernathy is a lay minister at his church in Chantilly, Va., and a former assistant secretary of the Treasury. David Gelernter is an artist, professor of computer science at Yale and a senior fellow in Jewish thought at the Shalem Center. Rizwan Jaka is chairman of the board of trustees, All Dulles Area Muslim Society and board member, Islamic Society of North America. Christopher Stevenson is founder and president of America's Quilt of Faith.