How To Keep The ‘United’ In United States

Coping With Religious Diversity In The World’s First ‘New’ Nation

“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I was sitting in an auditorium in Greeneville, Tenn., listening to two Sudanese boys, whom my wife and I had helped through college, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and take the oath of citizenship. Our Sudanese friends were Christian, but standing alongside them were Jews, Muslims, Hindus and who knows who else. All different. All about to become American citizens.

Two days later I was reading a prominent atheist’s shrill tirade against all things religious when I was reminded of what a unique nation we are and what a tall order being a good citizen really is.

On one extreme stand the “theocrats” – those religious firebrands of the far right. The problem with theocrats, as a preacher friend once noted, is that each one thinks he’s Theo. If they’re harping about prayer in schools, you can bet it’s regarding their prayers and not yours. These are some of the same people who think that the Earth is no older than your Great Aunt Edna and that hurricanes, tsunamis, HIV and even the 9/11 attacks are instruments of God’s wrath – never mind if a majority of the victims happen to be innocent children or the elderly. I think these red-faced believers are wrong, but hey, they’re my neighbors, and they’re just as American as I am.

On the other extreme stand the so-called religious “nones.” I’m not talking about women in black habits, but the people who, when the pollsters ask them their religious preference, reply, “None.” They’re Americans, too. They also happen to be one of the fastest-growing segments of our population, and two of their own, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have been sitting atop The New York Times best-seller list.

Is there hope?

Therein lies America’s challenge. We have a big group on the far right and a big group on the far left, and both groups plan to stick around. How, then, do we live together with such deep differences? Better still, how do we remain “one nation, indivisible?” Is there any real hope for finding common ground?

Religiously? No. Thousands of different religious groups make their home in America, and the country’s largest group – we Christians – has hundreds of subsets. Even our subsets have subsets. Consider for a moment that Al Gore and Newt Gingrich are both Baptists. So are the two Jesses – Helms and Jackson. There is not and never will be a religious consensus in America. It’s one of a dozen good reasons why we should never return to the practice of teacher-led prayers in our public schools. The first and most intractable question would always be: Whose prayer?

As I once heard former Republican senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon put it, “I don’t have the time to write all those prayers, and I don’t trust anyone else to!”

If there is no religious consensus in America, then what? Are we, like much of the rest of the world, left to flounder in our diversity with no hope of finding common ground?

Before we throw up our hands and move to a gated community, let’s do as colonial patriot George Mason once admonished his fellow Virginians to do during times of trouble and return to “fundamental principles.” What exactly does it mean to be an American other than the fact that most of us were born here? Is it simply that we drink Coke, wear Levis and shop at the Gap, or is there more to it than that?

At one time, for example, in order to be part of established Virginia society, you had to be several things: white, male, land-owning and Protestant – Anglican, to be more precise. It was that way in most of the colonies. And, although we have moved beyond much of our parochial past, many Americans still carry around with them these notions of what it once meant to be fully American.

Being American, of course, has nothing to do with our gender, economic status, skin color or where we go to church. Being American is about the principles and ideals set forth in our framing documents, namely, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When naturalized citizens swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, that’s what they’re talking about. That’s also why scholars sometimes refer to us as the world’s first “new” nation. America was the first nation to be founded not upon blood line or kinship, but upon principles and ideals.

‘More than a tribe’

Don’t get me wrong. Our “tribes” are important to us. It matters whether we are Baptists or Buddhists, male or female, Democrat or Republican. But remember, as Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray once reminded us, the Constitution does not begin, “We the tribe.” We are more than a tribe. Much more. We are a people. A pluralistic polyglot of races, religions and creeds committed to a common set of rights and responsibilities. Freedom of religion, speech, assembly and the press. Due process. Equal protection of the law. That’s the stuff that makes us Americans. Not whether or how we choose to worship.

In a word, the American consensus is civic, not religious. Within this civic framework, there is indeed a common vision for the common good. When it comes to religion, that vision means that persons of all faiths, or no faith, will be treated with fairness and respect.

Are we up to the task? Honestly, I’m not sure, but the civic framework set forth in our framing documents has served us well thus far. Admittedly, it takes a lot of work. The words on those hallowed pages do us very little good unless they are etched in the hearts and minds of our citizens. And that, dear Americans, is a challenge – particularly for a nation as diverse as ours.

We must begin living by a new Golden Rule. A “civic” Golden Rule, as scholar Os Guinness likes to call it. It goes like this: My rights are best protected by protecting your rights. That means Jews standing up for the rights of fundamentalist Christians and vice versa. It also means that the way we debate our differences is almost as important as the differences themselves.

If this sounds like the beginnings of a good New Year’s resolution, I think you’re right. Perhaps I’ll take my own advice and stop calling them theocrats.

Oliver “Buzz” Thomas is a minister, lawyer and author of the upcoming book 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job). This essay appeared first in USA Today.