California Forum

Gerald Haslam: Pluralism has served America just fine, thanks

An old school chum recently forwarded to me an email asserting that the United States is a Christian nation, and asked that I not only endorse it but pass it on to at least 10 people. “When we get 100,000,000 … willing Christians to BOND together, to voice their concerns and to vote, we can take America back – with God’s help.”

Take it back from what? The one-vote-per-person electoral system, or perhaps from our dysfunctional Congress? Perhaps a more comforting and controllable world is there for the taking.

Much complaining nowadays seems to come from those who only like government if it gives them priority. Occasionally someone reveals this, as when Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama recently complained about President Barack Obama’s so-called “war on whites.” As a lifelong white guy, I’m reminded of the title of Richard Farina’s 1966 novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” except that in Mo’s case it should be revised to read “Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me. “

I’m also a practicing (if imperfect) Catholic, but I’m afraid I can’t endorse the Christian-nation petition since the Founders explicitly avoided creating a country based on one faith (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). Moreover, the Constitution also doesn’t directly mention “Christ, Jesus, Christianity, Bible, God,” etc.; it does say “In the Year of our Lord ... ,” but such scant evidence leads to “what-they-really-meant” arguments that cause my malarkey meter to turn on.

Many of the nation’s early leaders were in fact strongly influenced by Deism – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, George Washington, et al. – and most had lived under a state religion (Church of England) and seen its shortcomings and ill effects.

Nowadays, with America’s efforts to impose Western political structures in the Middle East going badly, some people seem to want to return to a fantasized past. Were things really better in the 1930s or 1860s? Others seem to favor a mirror-image of exclusionary Islamic groups. Some even assert that Christians are biblically mandated to control secular institutions. Not I. I’m happy that I can attend church, and that my pals can go to temple, or to their mosques, or worship the breeze.

Pluralism seems to me to have served America well, though the United States remains an imperfect nation in an imperfect world. It doesn’t always get its way, but there’s no reason to abandon a system that has allowed us to adjust in a constantly changing and dangerous world. We survived Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush; we’ll survive Barack Obama.

I’m also delighted that our Constitution allows any native-born citizen with 14 years’ residence – Buddhist, Muslim, Baha’i, Flat-Earther, etc.; female or male or otherwise – to be president, and that most of the poorly veiled screed about our current leader can be frankly identified as what it is – lingering bigotry. I don’t recall anyone attacking Nixon as a Quaker usurper during the Watergate scandal or Carter as a renegade Baptist during his Panama Canal debates. Nor were their complexions an issue.

Most of all, I support the idea of “a nation of nations.” I long ago learned that functional pluralism is unusual indeed in a world where nearly every group seems to want an advantage. The last thing those of us who actually go to church and enjoy America’s rich cultural mix should desire is to imitate ISIS or “Christian Identity” cults or other nut jobs by trying to create an exclusionary state, nor should we try to dictate how others worship or don’t.