Magazine article Humanities

E Pluribus Unum: A New Religious America

Magazine article Humanities

E Pluribus Unum: A New Religious America

Article excerpt

Printed on the loose change in our pockets is the motto from the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum-"From Many, One." Today our pluribus is more striking than ever-our races and faces, our jazz and qawwali music, our Haitian drums and Bengali tablas, our hip-hop and bhangra dances, our mariachis and gamelans, our Islamic minarets and Hindu temple towers, our Mormon temple spires and golden gurdwara domes.

Amid this plurality, the expression of our unum, our oneness, will require many new voices, each contributing in its own way-like the voices of Sikhs who will stand up for the "self-evident truth" of human equality not only because it is written in the Declaration of Independence, but also because it is part of the teachings of Guru Nanak and a principle of their faith as Sikhs. Hearing new ways of giving expression to the idea of America is the challenge we face today.

One thing E pluribus unum clearly does not mean is "From many religions, one religion." Our oneness will not mean the blending of religions into a religious melting pot, all speaking a kind of religious Esperanto. There will be conversions, intermarriages, and forms of public and private syncretism, but there will never be unanimity on matters of religious truth. The unum will be civic-a oneness of commitment to the common covenants of our citizenship out of the manyness of religious ways and worlds.

"From Many, One," is not an accomplished fact but an ideal that Americans must continue to claim. What is the measure of our manyness? What is the meaning of our oneness? Like any good symbol, these words are capable of stretching in many directions. Their meanings have amplified from the time the motto was first adopted in 1782. It had a political meaning thenfrom many colonies, one republic; from many states, one nation. With the booming immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the motto took on a cultural dimension-from many peoples of nationalities, one people.

How will we handle the questions of our religious diversity today? The terms exclusion, assimilation, and pluralism suggest three ways in which Americans have approached our ever-broader cultural and religious diversity. For exclusionists, the answer to the tumultuous influx of cultural and religious diversity, which seemed to threaten the very core civilization of America, was to close the door, especially against the entry of "aliens," whether Asians, Catholics, or Jews. The message, in brief, was stay home, or go home, or in any case be excluded from the table of participation here in America.

For assimilationists, the invitation to new immigrants was to come, but leave your differences behind as quickly as possible. In other words, come and be like us.

For the pluralist, the American promise was to come as you are, with all your differences, pledged only to the common civic demands of citizenship. In other words, come and be yourselves.

The relationship of the pluribus and the unum can be sounded in all three keys, depending on the emphasis. We hear all three sounded in our history, and we can discern them in today's arguments over the new immigration and American multiculturalism.

When vandals broke into the newly constructed Hindu-Jain Temple in Pittsburgh and smashed the white marble images of the Hindu deities, they wrote the word "Leave!" across the main altar. That is the simple message of "exclusivism": what is foreign should leave. The graffiti and the violence of xenophobia are part of a long history of dealing with difference by excluding it. We recall the Puritans of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, who told Quakers, Jews, and Catholics in no uncertain terms to leave. The narrative of exclusion has long been part of the American story.

A second attitude toward difference in America is summed up in the word assimilation. People are welcome to come-and be like "us. …

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