In 2016, we face painful questions about our so-called unity. We are polarized politically, ethnically, socioeconomically and religiously. The rhetoric of the current election season reduces political foes to sub-human abstractions. “Black Lives Matter” to some, but to others the very phrase causes offense. Religious liberty is championed in some corners and mocked with scare quotes in others. Political scientist Kevin den Dulk recently observed in the Christian journal Comment that “we shout past each other about bathrooms and sexuality, race and policing, religion and immigration, and everything in between.” As the title of political analyst Yuval Levin’s important new book “The Fractured Republic” provocatively suggests, we are far from united.
How should we approach these challenges when we think about being a nation joined together by “self-evident” truths? To start, we might recognize that many of our past divisions were at least as intense as the ones we confront today. A greater awareness of our past differences might give us more confidence that our present and future divisions may not be as bleak as we sometimes fear.
Begin with the Declaration’s inspirational language, which belies frictions that lie below its surface.
America’s founders, of course, did not actually agree that all men (to say nothing of women) were created equal. The boundaries of “liberty” were contested, and “happiness” evoked a civic-mindedness that not everyone shared.
When it came to religious belief, the vast majority of 18th-century Americans acknowledged inalienable rights “endowed by their Creator” and most of them understood their Creator through a Protestant lens. But the divisions within Protestantism were far starker than they are today. In fact, early in our country’s history, Protestant sects were quick to use the law to gain political advantage and shut down their religious opponents. Later, a Protestant majority that had placated many of its internal divisions used its political power to harangue and oppress Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and others.
Nor are the vicious insults and careless rhetoric from today’s feuds all that new.
Long before Twitter rants and Trumpisms, Puritan preacher John Cotton and Baptist firebrand Roger Williams wrote treatises against each other laced with name-calling and personal ridicule. The founders did not mince words either. In the presidential election of 1800, supporters of Thomas Jefferson wrote that John Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Those supporting Adams responded that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” In fact, impolite partisan jabs seem part-and-parcel to every election cycle. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams accused each other of sexual improprieties during their campaigns — and they were not the last presidential candidates to do so. And it wasn’t that long ago that pundits declared the 2012 campaign to be the “nastiest,” “meanest” and “dirtiest” ever.
Lest we think that only words divided us in past times, we might remember that Puritans executed Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, race riots and labor unrest led to hundreds of deaths in the 19th and 20th centuries, and 620,000 Americans died at the hands of other Americans during the Civil War. Nor did our common American heritage prevent our predecessors from slaughtering Native Americans, enslaving African Americans, and interning Japanese Americans.
The Declaration of Independence closes with words less known — but no less aspirational — than those found in its opening: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Today, a growing number of Americans no longer espouse a “firm reliance” on “divine Providence.” And words like “Fortunes” and “Honor” may also be on the path to obsolescence.
Our lack of agreement about Providence, Fortunes, and Honor — to say nothing of Equality, Liberty, and Happiness — raises significant challenges for how we identify and prioritize our common interests and shared goals. Yet even though we may harbor deep disagreements over some of the fundamental language in the Declaration, so did the founding generation and so have most Americans throughout our country’s history.
Despite these disagreements and these challenges, there remains something powerful and enduring to the notion of “mutually pledging to each other our Lives.” We make this pledge not only because we have no other option, but also because we retain a modest unity even in the midst of our differences.
Our mutual pledge to one another — however thin and however strained — enacts a trust and a confidence that we remain, for better and for worse, a people united.
John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis. His book, “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference,” was published in May.