I recently finished a biography on George Washington. The book, so thick it could be used as a weapon, leads readers through the fascinating life of a man who stumbled into fortune on many fronts, but was never able to shed the yoke of responsibility – largely because he demonstrated the rare willingness to let go of the expansive powers thrust upon him (a la Cincinnatus).
As a layperson in the world of history, my biggest takeaway from the Washington biography was that even at its formation the country was anything but united. There were a host of challenges, including how to pay for this new arrangement, but the largest – slavery – was essentially punted when it became clear that this single issue would prevent any agreement and cause the fledgling nation to fail.
The idea that someone down the line would figure it out worked, until it didn’t – see the Civil War. Even that conflict, which cost over 200,000 American lives, did not settle the issue. Race riots in the 1960s are just one example. More recently the Black Lives Matter movement has shaken the foundations of our society and, in some places, our views of law enforcement.
There have been moments of joy that brought Americans closer together, such as the end of World War II. There has also been unity via shared pain, such as 911. When we lack these unifying events we as a people seem eager to go back to the pursuit of numbering all of our differences.
There are many ways to label someone: rich versus poor, urban versus rural, local versus foreign (which could simply mean the next state over), sex, sexual orientation, politics, education, race, and, of course, religion. I, a chubby white guy, have lived in both large cities and small towns. In the US, I have lived in the south, the west and the east. I have lived in places where I stuck out as the sorest of the thumbs (Costa Rica) and places where I am definitely a foreigner (Canada) but manage to glide under the radar because of the color of my skin and a (mostly) shared language. I have been labeled by others in all of these spots (some more than others). I also recognize that I am very fortunate to be a white man, though my time in Costa Rica taught me what it feels like to be a foreign minority.
Now in my sixth decade, with the echoes of the US election still ringing in my ears, I believe the single biggest difference I’ve witnessed in society, particularly in the US, is that the idea of keeping your politics and religion to yourself has gone by the wayside. I suspect that social media has a lot to do with the crashing of these voluntary guardrails which kept society from running off the road. Perhaps our society would have taken this course regardless, but the ability to say things from the safety of your computer has definitely sped things along.
This newer freedom of expression is growing even as diversity within the United States increases. Nearly half of post-Millennials are racial or ethnic minorities. Many of the same differentiators found in the white community (religion, politics, education, wealth, etc.) also exist within this diverse group. Despite efforts to limit immigration, the population of the United States is likely only to grow more diverse over the coming generations. Those clinging to identify only with others who reflect their unique mindset, appearance and religion are likely going to find “their” numbers shrinking, not expanding.
Religion, one of the main filters, is often touted by those who state that the United States has always been “one nation, under God.” Putting aside debates over the religion of the founding fathers, we should recall that the “under God” element was only added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 via the prompting of Reverend George M. Docherty. Rev. Docherty, who immigrated to the US in 1950, took over the reins of the Presbyterian church in D.C. where Lincoln once worshipped. Those in attendance of the Rev. Docherty’s February, 1954 sermon espousing the inclusion of God in the pledge included President Eisenhower, who was sufficiently moved by it that he signed the change into law four months later (June 14th, which is also known as “Flag Day” and is the birthdate of President Trump).
It is also worth noting that Rev. Docherty believed that Jews and Muslims shared the God he defined but felt that atheists, “…fell short of the American ideal of life.” He did, however, believe strongly in racial equality, led efforts to support the poor and was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam war.
How would such a man be viewed in today’s society? What would his party affiliation be? What would his Facebook page say? Would he tweet about the fairly recent turmoil within the Presbyterian church over the rights of homosexuals to marry? How would his sermons be received if they questioned the actions of the existing President and his administration? How would those who argue that religion has no place within the government feel about a man who believes that to be “truly” American is to be religious?
We can, I suppose, continue to focus on what makes all of us different. For better or worse, there is a podcast, commentator or website to support just about any position you choose to call your own. We can continue to take the “us versus them” approach using broad litmus tests to exclude large swaths of the population.
The other option is to focus on the common vision we share citizens of the United States, putting aside our differences in an effort to promote what is best for all. I am pessimistic about this approach for many reasons, including the fact that we the people lack an agreement on what is best for all –or who “all” is. I think, as a start, we should return to the the idea that politics and religion have no place in polite company. The world in which I grew up was far from perfect (for that matter, neither was George Washington) but the fact that we had boundaries in our discourse is part of what allowed the conversation in the first place.
We all have the right to think whatever we wish, but that does not mean we have to say everything we think. If we fail to find common ground, and soon, there will be very little left to be united about.