Full text is available for purchase online from Princeton University Press
Chapter 1: Religious Diversity and the American Promise
In his book What it Means to Be an American, Michael Walzer observes that political theorists since the time of the Greeks have generally assumed that diversity and democracy do not mix well together. A state works best when it is made up of human beings who view themselves, as a consequence of certain bonds of identity, as a single people. Uniformity of belief was understood as especially important for peaceful participatory societies. Walzer summarizes the view of generations of political theorists thus: “One religious communion, it was argued, made one political community.”
A few paragraphs later, he writes, “The great exception to this rule is the United States.” The American Founders set for themselves the remarkable task of building a religiously diverse democracy, an experiment never before tried at such a scale in human history.
What will it take for the American experiment to thrive in the twenty-first century? That is the question that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has set for itself in launching the Our Compelling Interests series. We find ourselves in the midst of what William H. Frey calls, in an essay written for the first volume in the series, “the diversity explosion . . . a demographic force that will remake America.” Will the United States leverage the current diversity explosion to promote the common good, or will it blow up in our faces in forms such as open prejudice, rampant discrimination, deeper disunity, further in equality, and identity conflict?
This volume focuses on the topic of religion. The growing immigrant and minority populations in the United States bring different colors, languages, foods, and family patterns, as well as varied expressions of faith. Religion gives individuals a powerful sense of purpose, and it also induces guilt that brings them to the edge of despair. It binds what would other wise be a random collection of people into a caring community while simultaneously providing a sacred justification for painfully excluding others. Religious language has given the United States some of its most enduring symbols (“city on a hill,” “beloved community,” “almost chosen people”), and it is the source of a significant amount of the nation’s social capital and the inspiration behind many of our most vital civic institutions (universities, hospitals, and social service agencies, for example). This is not an unalloyed good. In a diverse society, symbols, networks, and institutions can just as easily be mobilized in the service of violent conflict as inspiring cooperation.
Of all the various forms of diversity that we speak of these days (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and so on), religious diversity may be the one that the Founders came closest to getting right. These (generally) wealthy, (loosely) Christian, (presumably) straight, (most as suredly) white male slaveholders managed to create a constitutional system that protected freedom of religion, barred the federal government from establishing a single church, prevented religious tests for those running for political office, and penned more than a few poetic lines about building a religiously diverse democracy.
Here, for example, is George Washington responding to the Jewish leader Moses Seixas, who wrote the first president a letter asking about the fate of Jews in the new nation: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
James Madison believed that allowing religious diversity to flourish was essential to establishing social peace. In the Federalist Papers, he stated, “The degree of security . . . will depend on the number of interests and sects.”
Benjamin Franklin appeared to take that counsel to heart when he decided to make a financial contribution to every one of the diverse religious communities building a house of worship in Philadelphia. Just in case there were groups that were not represented, Franklin raised money for a hall in Philadelphia that was, in his words, “expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something,” and he explicitly stated that it would be open to Muslim preachers. The religious leaders of Philadelphia expressed their gratitude to Franklin in a variety of ways, including by fulfilling Franklin’s wish to celebrate July 4 “arm in arm” and also observing his funeral together.
The Founders intended for the ethic of religious pluralism they were nurturing at home to extend to international relations. President John Adams signed a treaty with Tripoli in 1791 that stated, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Mussulmen,— and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the countries.”
And they were not the first European settlers on the Eastern Seaboard to express such sentiments. Over a century earlier, a group of citizens in present-day Queens, concerned about the threats that Director General Peter Stuyvesant of what was then New Amsterdam (now New York) was leveling against Quakers, gathered to draft a statement of welcome that became known as the Flushing Remonstrance. They wrote, “The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extend[s] to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam. . . . Our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us.”
And Roger Williams, banished from John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony for disagreeing with the Puritan insistence on enforcing religious law with civil authority, had this to say about the prospect of a religiously diverse nation in 1644: “And I aske whether or no such as may hold forth other Worships or Religions, (Jewes, Turkes, or Antichristians) may not be peaceable and quiet Subjects, loving and helpful neighbours, faire and just dealers, true and loyall to the civill government? It is cleare they may from all Reason and Experience in many flourishing Cities and Kingdomes of the World, and so offend not against the civill State and Peace; no incurre the punishment of the civill Sword.”
It is this long tradition that Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, recalled during his first inaugural address, standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, looking out toward the Lincoln Memorial: