The United States of America, as we hear constantly, is a country divided. On every issue imaginable there are (at least) two sides, whether those are liberal and conservative, religious and secular, or haves and have-nots. People on each side advocate passionately for their views, and there is no shortage of commentators eager to referee or spur the two sides on. All too often, however, the fight itself threatens to overwhelm the issues over which the sides are fighting. In the end, spectacle often wins out over substance, nothing is settled, and we find ourselves more divided than ever.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make our debates more civil, rational, and productive, without sacrificing the passion that all of us have for our beliefs. And the person that can provide an example of this is none other than the star-spangled Avenger himself, Captain America.
Fans of the Marvel comic books, animated series, or films know “Cap” as a paragon of virtue, a paramount leader, and above all a patriot. His love for his country is often caricatured as a pigheaded jingoism, which is unfortunate because Cap’s brand of patriotism is very nuanced and subtle. It is not insular but cosmopolitan, and in its spirit he extends his support and protection to all peoples of the world based on his ideals of justice, equality, and liberty. These are not exclusive American ideals, but ideals that he nonetheless learned as an American and associates with the country of his birth.
Furthermore, these ideals dominate his relationship to America. One of the most inspiring qualities about Captain America is his elevation of principle over politics. He demands the same ethical behavior of America’s elected leaders as he does of himself, because they all serve the same nation and the same ideals. Many times in the comics Cap has stood up to the American government out of dedication to principles that take precedence over whoever happens to be in power at any particular time.
Captain America recognizes that politics is messy by nature because it deals with balancing interests and making compromises that often don’t appear very principled. This is one reason he stays out of politics, even when he has been urged to run for office by his fellow Americans. Cap prefers to leave politics to politicians and dedicate himself to representing the principles and ideals that all Americans share.
How can we share any principles or ideals when we seem to disagree on so much? While our disagreements are undoubtedly very real and important, everybody from the far left to the extreme right believes in some version of the basic ideals of justice, equality, and liberty. What we disagree on is how to understand them, how to put them into action, and how to balance them when they conflict.
Consider any topic of heated debate today, such as health care, abortion, or immigration: all sides in these issues believe in some idea of justice, equality, and liberty, but they interpret, balance, and implement them differently. The Hobby Lobby case, argued recently before the Supreme Court, ultimately comes down to issues of religious liberty, fairness (or justice) in health care provision and financing, and equality of treatment and consideration. Most everyone on both sides of this issue agree that both religious and reproductive freedom should be respected to some extent. They differ only over which ideal takes precedence in which cases, especially when payment and provision are concerned. No one is really trying to “destroy religion” or “withhold contraception,” and this emotional rhetoric only serves to obscure the real issues at the heart of the debate and prevent any real compromise or consolidation.
By emphasizing core ideals and principles instead of details and politics, Captain America serves as an example of how we can keep in mind the ideals that we have in common and focus our attention on where our real disagreements are. If we remember our shared values and principles, we will have the opportunity to discuss our differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect, instead of shouting past each other in a fog of bitter acrimony.
This post was based on my book The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Supehero, available now from Wiley Blackwell. For more information on the book, see the page for it at my personal blog, which includes links to the introduction and first chapter as well as other articles and blog posts I have written on the topic (including here at Psychology Today). These posts are particularly relevant to the one you just read:
"Can Captain America Fix America in Marvel's Ultimate Comics Universe--and Ours?": A post at The Comics Professor exploring Captain America's relationship to the U.S. presidency in several Marvel universes.
"Can Captain America Show Us How to Be More Cosmopolitan?": A post here at Psychology Today discussing the nature of Captain America's patriotism.