Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America

By Desmond S. King; Rogers M. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
“That They May All Be One”
America as a House Divided

The United Church of Christ takes as its motto John 17:21, “That They May All Be One.” The UCC was created in 1957 through the union of the Congregational Christian Churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Church.1 Its theological roots are in the Calvinism of the early New England Puritans and Congregationalists who did so much to shape American political culture. As with its Congregationalist forebears, all its local churches have autonomy in matters of doctrine and ministry, so that the UCC describes itself as a pluralistic and diverse denomination that strives to achieve “unity within its diversity.”2

The quest for such unity amidst diversity runs deeply through American history. On the birthday of the nation, July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress authorized a committee comprising John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to recommend a design for a Great Seal of the United States, then declaring their independence. The committee proposed as the seal’s national motto a similar phrase: “E Pluribus Unum”—“Out of many, one.”3

The leaders of America’s founding generation knew well that of all the challenges they faced, slavery and racial equality most profoundly threatened their efforts to make the aspiration expressed in the new national motto a reality. In response, many strove mightily in ensuing years to keep those issues as remote from the national agenda as possible. But four score and two years later, an Illinois lawyer with high political aspirations, Abraham Lincoln, invoked a different biblical passage, Matthew 12:25, to argue that when it came to slavery, policies of evasion and compromise could not long endure: “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

After he did so, the American house did indeed break apart in a massive civil war. At its end, the United States purged slavery throughout the land by constitutional amendment. Still, convulsive issues of racial policy and racial equality remained. Nearly a century later, when the United Church of Christ was created, Congress was in the throes of passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act,

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