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E Pluribus Unum

Well, since last fall, we have had Zoom political conventions, dueling town hall meetings in place of a second Presidential debate, a lot of excitement and concern over voting, a multitude of failed court challenges to elections results, and then an actual insurrection with intent to perhaps apprehend and execute some of the people in direct line of succession to the President.  Then came the Biden/Harris inauguration, where President Biden asked us all to embrace unity.  Unity.

Unity used to be a part of the fabric of our democratic republic.  In 1782 the U.S. Congress adopted “E Pluribus Unum” as our national motto. From many, one.  Not a bad idea; a pretty inclusive idea that encapsulates the core idea of the “United States.”  Interestingly enough, I grew up learning this motto for the U.S., even thought it was changed four years before I was born.

In the face of growing influence Soviet Union, our Congress in 1956 changed it to “In God we trust.”  It was used to differentiate our “Citizenry on a Hill” from our Cold War opponents, those “godless Communists,” but it doesn’t seem to have the strength and appropriateness of the original.  While it can be a pleasant and moving sentiment, it is far less inclusive of American citizens, especially if one has particular ideas about Who/What “God” is.  It certainly doesn’t reflect the visions of the framers, many of whom were Deists, rather than Christians.  It seems to alienate those citizens who are questioning or confused about religion, or who simply do not believe in God. 

The revision of our motto It seems to breach the wall separating Church and State.  We know which State is referenced, but it is unclear which God is intended.  Even if it is vague enough to include many versions of God or Gods, both Christian and not, it seems inherently divisive, especially when the fastest growing religious identification in the nation is “None.”

This is more than a Starbucks-cup, culture-wars flash in the pan.  If we truly want to be the United States, to try to “form a more perfect Union,” we might want to find all sorts of ways to signal that we really want to bridge the gaps and mend the fences we have left untended for half a century.  If we are looking for unity as Americans, we can start with including all citizens into each of our own mental pictures of the Union, no matter what religion, race, sex, gender, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, education level, geography (or other dividing characteristic). 

            If we aren’t looking for unity, we should just admit it and move forward with honesty, rather than platitudes.  And being honest with one another is one way to start to build … unity.  Build unity, despite difference.  Build unity, not sameness.  Build unity of hearts and minds even when we fiercely disagree about things.  And we need to be clear that ideologies of hate toward various groups are not mere differences of opinion; they are not valid political goals.  They are impediments to unity of reasonable people, roadblocks to liberty and justice for all.  When it come to the body politic, we don’t all have to believe in God, or believe in the same way;  but we all surely need to believe in one another.  It is an action; an ongoing act of faith—faith in our country, our system of government, our people, and ourselves.

This is neither simple nor easy.  We thought it might happen when the Soviet Union collapsed, but it didn’t.  We hoped it would happen after the first Iraq war; but it didn’t.  We expected it to happen when the Bosnian war was concluded via air power and our national budget was balanced; but it didn’t.  We felt it would happen after the tragedy of 9-11; but it didn’t.  We thought it could happen with the election of the first Black President; but, it didn’t.   Every time it  didn’t, because we didn’t work at it.  We thought it would happen to us.  It simply feels to me like the time has finally come to stop being foolishly selfish about politics and get to work on some things that help everybody.  Ev. Re. Bo. Dy. 

It doesn’t mean we can’t disagree.  It doesn’t mean that we must capitulate to craziness.  But we must be open to some new ways of thinking, to listen to the children we are leaving this planet to.  We just need to be decent about it and act with consideration and compassion toward other people, especially if they are not usually empowered by our society.  We need to be properly attending to the stranger, the sick, the poor, the overburdened, the disenfranchised, one’s own enemy, even.  Like it says in more than one of those books about that God our national motto is pledging us to trust in. 

Maybe then we can actually continue on a path to actually create “a more perfect union.”  Maybe then we can find ways to do our part to help to bend that “long moral arc” of the universe toward some actual justice.  Or we can continue on as we have, wielding conflicting words and actions, and we will get what we have always gotten.  And that has not often been … unity … in these United States.

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