The whole world is watching. It is waiting to see how the great American experiment unfolds. That experiment has been from the founding days of the nation to fashion “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”—as the Pledge of Allegiance reminds us. But some Americans divide on the scope of the nation the Pledge of Allegiance assumes. A recent Pew Poll suggests that many Americans believe it is very important for true Americans to be Christian, or native-born. Michael Anton, now a National Security Council staffer, wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus during the presidential campaign that diversity was a weakness. Others admit a plurality of religions and national origins into the makeup of American identity. We are divided between these visions. Which one will hold?
We have been here before. President Lincoln wondered in his Gettysburg Address whether a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure.” Lincoln was citing Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.” But, for Lincoln, our equality is more a proposition than a self-evident truth. So long as slavery endured, equality did not reign. Equality was for Lincoln in his speech a “great task” and “unfinished work.”
Three things qualify as “great” in Lincoln’s speech: the Civil War itself, the battlefield of Gettysburg, and the task of the unfinished work to enact equality for all. The greatness of these things is in the magnitude of the challenges they pose, to preserve the union, honor the dead, and realize Jefferson’s vision of equality. The unity of the nation and the vision of equality were in tension. They still are.
At issue are the ingredients of nationhood. What makes us “one nation, indivisible?” Are we one in our sameness or in our differences from each other? Is it our similarities or our complementarities that unite us? Are we a mono-cultural or multicultural society?
If we are divided in how we answer these questions, we have at least one thing in common: we share the sorrow over that very division. Indeed we must if we are as indivisible as the Pledge of Allegiance claims. How do we reclaim the unity we’ve lost?
Our founding documents suggest a way. Jefferson delivered up his Declaration “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” Lincoln hoped in his Address that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln reference religion. It is only God they name and presuppose. They suggest a different frame of reference for seeing ourselves. They invite us to view ourselves from the vantage point of divine transcendence, or, if we are atheists, from a more cosmic outlook above the daily fray. The ancient Stoics called it the view from above. Compared to what’s above us all, we bond more strongly with our partners in humanity.
In support of this unitive way, our religions lend a hand. For the religions too lament the divisions among us. A poem many Americans know and love, the Masnavi, by the medieval Persian mystic, Rumi, begins on a note of division. The poem opens with the cry of a reed that has been cut from its reed bed. It longs for reunion with its source. The poem has a mystical meaning; but also a political one. It speaks to our time.
Rumi was a Muslim and a refugee. He lived on the move in the medieval Middle East under threat by the conquering Mongols of his day. But he raised a vision of unity. His God was the God equally of all. When we live “under God,” as he believed, the worldviews that name us take back seat. The Quran makes the point repeatedly. Through his prophets, God tells humanity that “your nation is one nation” (Quran 23:52) and charges that we “be not divided therein” (Quran 42:13). God says, “We have … made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another” (Quran 49:13).
Our religions are a resource for unitive thinking. Let them join in support of the facts on the ground. That Pew poll on American identity suggests that as our youngsters age, Americans will increasingly understand their national identity to lie in the peaceable interaction of different religions, customs, and traditions. Harmony among us grows. The conflicts that persist are the darkness before the dawn. If we look keenly enough before us we’ll see and advance towards the age the prophet Isaiah foretold for the nations: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation” (Isaiah 2:4)—nor red and blue America sharp words against each other. May it be so.
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