American Civic Life

POEM: faith in democracy 

A group of American citizens use ballots to vote in the election. (SDI Productions/Getty Images)

A group of American citizens use ballots to vote in the election. (SDI Productions/Getty Images)

In mid-July, I attended the Frontiers of Democracy: Religious Pluralism and Robust Democracy in Multiracial Societies conference at Tufts University in the Boston area. They invited me to close the forum with a creative reflection. I wanted to channel and sample what I heard in the conference’s workshops and plenaries and reflect on my hopes for the nation while trying to represent the values of Interfaith America.  

This poem is a breakbeat poem/prayer, meaning it utilizes the aesthetics of hip-hop cultural practice, which is to say I sample and riff and reference phrases and ideas that are not mine in origin, as well as adding my flavor to the mix. Hip-hop is a diasporic practice, blending pidgins, alchemy, fusion, magic, and democratic majesty. I hope you find this reflection valuable and fresh as we consider ways to bridge, heal, and uplift our nation.  

a pledge   

a preamble  

we the people   

we see it   

right there   

right away   

right Buber?  

an I in Thou   

a Muhammad   

in America  

as Ali said me we  

my destiny tied   

to your freedom  

pursuit. from the jump   

in theory   

the erasure of the dual  

or the duel   


yet here we are   



there is difference   

and a difference   

between theory and praxis  

in democracy and in religion  

in what we say   

and how we do   


it’s hard work  

to admit an original sin  

that we f—ed up from the beginning  

regardless of the revisionisms and goodwill.  

america’s ideals drawn in blood and bondage  

bound by bigotry   

powered by the cotton gin.  

whiteness is like this  


the work of making this country whole   

and holy and hopeful has always been those   

born on the outskirts of where the ideal reaches   

those who bear witness to our hypocrisies  

numerous and continuous  

and yet still have the courage   

the decency, the care and love  

to call our country to its higher self.  

to its G-dself  


america the ideal, america the utopian.   

how many Moseses and Tubmans   

have pointed the way forward   

and continue to do so   


we are fighting now   

and have always fought  


we are mired in toxic division.   

algorithmic balkanization.  

our nation divided.   

these states far from united  

so it seems   

we are bursting at the seams  

at least that’s what the television screams  


yet everyday i ride the bus with those   

who rise to a different morning prayer  


every day a firefighter saves   

someone who votes differently.  

whose opinion is not their own  


how do we resist the urge to become contemptuous  

in a culture stewed in anguish and anger  


when will we reconcile our own death  

and relinquish ourselves to our forever endeavor   


there is no i in democracy.   

we tend to a garden   

we will not see the fruits of.  


it will take revolutionary patience   

and places of renewal   

to curb our trauma and adhd.  

our national amnesia   


we must build new sanctuaries.   

national monuments that honor and heal the many.   

the masses who feel ostracized from the civic space.  

what is the separation between church and state  

anyway but another false division.   


we call the whole self into the town square  

welcome all into the conversation   

no lines of separation   

proximity matters  

and we are working to counter an intentionally segregated citizenry  


there is much to celebrate and much to be concerned about   

but do we spend as much time listening to the voices singing  

as we do to those shouting   

do we shine light on the everyday person doing everyday work  

do we highlight kindness as much as we do derision   

are we prepared to listen  

to the deep crevices within our nation  

and within ourselves  

and is there a difference   


can we listen to the jingle jangle broken records of our commonwealth and deficit  


we the people   

are asking what does love look like in public   

the non-hierarchical non performative kind  

no king   

not a pyramid but a collective   

not a death pyre unless we are burning the i as separate   

to return to our body politic  

to return to the whole in holy  

the all in together now   

the ayin   

the ah yeah  

the yes and  

the affirmative   

the cipher  

the choir  

singing in off and different keys  


we are a mess   

enmeshed and a wash in stress  

we say the wildest of things  


but do they not have etymologies  

are our misunderstandings not understandable   

by the misery in our histories  


each moment teachable says the Zen master  


therefore there is no conversation i am afraid of.   


and if it’s difficult, so what!   

and it it’s uncomfortable, so what!   

and if my neighbor looks, sounds, smells, thinks, votes, f—-, prays, believes different than i   

so what!  


i am a radical listener.  

a keeper of seeds and stories  

from which this country will rise and build again and again  

a center trying to find and trust itself   

a beloved community whose framework is expanding and expansive  

whose imagination is fearless   

and limitless   

and will commit to fail and fall.  

this work is tough  

but we will get back up   

and try this shit again  



our joy, is in the work   

not of perfection   

but of attempts  

the craft of building bridges that will hold  

and honor and love us all  

Kevin Coval is a Senior Advisor at Interfaith America.