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Sacred Ground: The Promise of America

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The following is an excerpt of Eboo Patel's new book, 'Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America.'

In "What It Means to Be an American," Michael Walzer observes that political theorists since the Greeks believed that participatory politics could exist only in ethnically or religiously homogenous nations: "One religious communion, it was argued, made one political community ... One people made one state."

Pluralism -- one state with many peoples -- existed only under empires. The next section begins with this line: "Except in the United States."

Human history is littered with examples of different identity groups at war with each other. More frequently than the faithful would like to admit, religious belief has fueled the fighting. Against this backdrop, the American achievement, while far from perfect, is still remarkable. As Barack Obama said in his inaugural address, "Our patchwork heritage is strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth."[ii] What is even more astonishing is our refusal to stand still to be content with past progress or favorable comparisons to other nations. We constantly seek to improve this pluralist, participatory, patchwork democracy.

Religious pluralism is at the heart of the American tradition, a value inscribed in our soil from the very beginning. On a trip to Newport, R.I., in 1790, President Geroge Washington heard a plea from Moses Seixas, of Newport's Hebrew Congregation. Seixas was worried about the fate of Jews in the new nation. Would they be harassed and hated as they had been for so many centuries in Europe? Washington knew other religious communities had similar concerns. He chose the occasion of his response to Seixas to state plainly his vision for America:

"[T]he Government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. ... May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants -- while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."[i]

Washington is offering a vision of a national community, not simply articulating a legal doctrine: In America, people will have their identities respected, their freedoms protected and their safety secured. They will be encouraged to cultivate good relationships with fellow Americans from other backgrounds, no matter the tensions and conflicts in the lands from which they came. And they will be invited -- and expected -- to contribute to the common good of their country. Respect, relationship and commitment to the common good -- those were Washington's three pillars of pluralism in a diverse democracy.

Washington came to his views through both principle and practical experience. As the leader of the Continental Army, the first truly national institution, Washington recognized he was going to need the contributions of all willing groups in America. The rampant anti-Catholic bigotry at that time was disrespectful to Catholic identity, a divisive force within the Continental Army, and a threat to the success of the American Revolution. Washington banned insults to Catholics like burning effigies of the pope, told his officers to make sure the contributions of Catholics were welcomed, and scolded those who disobeyed with words like these: "At such a juncture, and in such circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused."[ii]

It was the same in Washington's private life. When seeking a carpenter and a bricklayer for his Mount Vernon estate, he remarked, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists."[iii] What mattered is what they could build.

America's promise is to guarantee equal rights for all identities. This framework of rights facilitates the contributions of these many communities to this single country. That is America's genius. The idea is simple: People whose nation gives them dignity will build up that society. When we say we are an immigrant nation, we mean more than just that various religious and ethnic groups settled here in America, bringing with them their Hebrew prayers and Hindu chants. We are recognizing the fact that the institutions they built benefited not just their own communities but the common good of this country. The hyphen between Jewish, Christian and American is not a barrier; it's a bridge. Those things that make you a better Catholic or Buddhist or Sikh -- generosity, compassion, service -- also make you a better American. America gains when its immigrants bring the inspirations of their particular heritage across the ocean to these shores and plant it in this soil. Those seeds have grown into Catholic hospitals, Lutheran colleges, Quaker high schools, Southern Baptist disaster-relief organizations, Jewish philanthropy and much more. The institutional expressions of religious identity are the engines of American civil society.

[i] George Washington, "To Bigotry No Sanction," American Treasures, Library of Congress, August 17, 1790, http://www.loc.gov/.

[ii] Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (New York: Random House, 2009), 65.

[iii] Paul F. Boller, George Washington and Religion (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1963), 120.