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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Pluralism - a Good Idea that Works


Contrary to the revisionist history most Americans want to remember, there was no monolithic group known as "the Founding Fathers". The men who declared their independence from Britain, then men who fought in the War of Independence, and the men who wrote the Constitution disagreed on almost every single thing. The only thing they did agree on with some regularity was that they had to work together to make things work - and even that idea had its detractors. The "Great Experiment" that became the United States of America was founded entirely upon the idea of compromise and moderation. The very concepts of freedom and liberty demand some level of tolerance or else they become hollow. What good is freedom of speech, for example, if one can only say what is approved?

Religion was one of the most contentious issues of all. Attitudes varied from the most vigorous supporters of a church-state, to those who were indifferent, to those who abhorred the idea. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had almost complete disdain for the Presbyterian Church and its mandatory attendance and tithing under colonial rule, yet they both spoke regularly about the necessity of a moralizing religion for society. Ethan Allen (before he was a furniture store) wrote, "I have generally been denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism makes me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not strictly speaking whether I am one or not." Thomas Paine, perhaps the most socialist and atheist of all of Founding Fathers, wrote: "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church."

Yet this group found a moderate road. They found a way to allow the existence of churches without the encroachment of civil authority upon or from those houses of worship. Oddly enough, Thomas Paine fought vigorously for the legal protection of all churches. "He who would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression," he wrote.

For centuries now, that model of moderation and toleration has worked to slowly increase our liberties and freedoms. In the last thirty years, however, a group of Christians has worked to erase that heritage. They have fought to eradicate the idea of our agnostic founding and to implement an alternative history whereby the Ten Commandments would be lain side-by-side with the Constitution for legal authority.

I'd like to say that this group is well-intentioned, but misguided. However, when their intention is to destroy the foundation of our country, it's a bit of a stretch for me to be so generous. Instead, I'll say that they are so gullible and ignorant of reality that they allow themselves to be used by leaders that amount to nothing more than demogogues.

You have groups such as the Wallbuilders whose only purpose for existence is to alter reality so that the United States becomes an official Christian Nation. I have no problem with someone who says they want to use this or that as a basis of morality in law. These guys, however, are trying to rewrite history to make us something we never have been.

It is the culture of plurality that has always let America settle its internal differences in a peaceful manner (with the obvious and glaring exception of the Civil War). This isn't to say that there is never any strife or violence, because quite obviously there have been. On the whole, however, we tend to work out legislative compromises that let just enough steam escape from an issue to keep it from boiling over.

Europe's history, however, has tended to be very different. Each little country of Europe has historically developed its own culture, language, money, and feeling of superiority over its neighbors. It has only been since the end of World War II that Europe has begun to move towards unity and break down those divisions. There is one area, however, where Europe still hasn't abandoned its old ways.

Take a look at the requirements for gaining citizenship in Germany. Basically, if your parents weren't citizens, you're just out of luck. There is some loopholes - such as having EU citizenship. That, however, doesn't not do anything for 23 million Muslims in Europe - most of which come from abroad and most of which are used as manual laborers.

By contrast, the United States has fairly easy citizenship rules. This has allowed generations of people to come here and, within a generation, feel greater connection to their new home than to their old one. Many people complain about the inherent distance created by such labels as Italian-American or Korean-American, but the fact is that the emphasis is still on the "American" part of the phrase.

It is telling that the terrorists that planned and perpetrated the attacks of 9/11 were not American citizens, but Muslims from abroad who had come here specifically for that purpose. It is also telling that many of the Muslim organizations in Europe have the express intent of spreading discontent about Western policy towards the Middle East while those in America tend to focus strongly on interfaith efforts at understanding and peace. It's too simplistic to say that it all hinges on the ability to achieve citizenship, but citizenship is a key measure of assimilation - as is the ability to achieve a "Middle Class" way of life.

When you have a group of Christians on the extreme right who are the apparent power ascendent in the Republican Party (which is also the majority party as of this writing), then it is a bit frightening to see that their intolerance extends not only to other faiths, but to interior divisions among Christians. If they are successful in re-making America into an Evangelical Right-wing Nation, then the era of terrorism will never fall, but will be ushered in with greater and greater commitment to stamping out dissent through hostility. Already Muslims and people who "appear to be Arabic" are subjected to more intense scrutiny at airports and on international flights. With the ongoing calls to close our borders, it is not difficult to predict (hopefully I'm wrong on this) that America will move to put limits on how many and in what way Muslims can gain the rights of citizenship.

Pulling back into a shell of protective isolation has never worked. We should refrain from advocating it. However, there is a world of difference betweeen isolationism and the overly-aggressive and muscular foreign policy the Bush Administration has used as its first recourse.

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