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Out of Many One: Why America Is Losing Her Unity

John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Monday, May 10, 2010

Out of Many One: Why America Is Losing Her Unity

When governments try to ban religious practice, they possibly create martyrs, probably fail, and almost certainly become tyrannical. Law cannot create national unity or solve the problems of a disappearing national consensus. A just society must prize both unity and diversity, but history shows that unity that comes from a centralized government is not worth defending. 

Europeans are wrong to ban religious practice, but not wrong to fear the breakdown of national consensus that will come when too many citizens question the founding ideas of the society. Government has allowed rapid societal change by its policies which have undermined unity, while the only safe means to nurture unity are slow and work at the lower levels of a culture.

The danger is that the same governments that unleashed potential chaos will overreact and destroy our liberty. Another danger is that opposing consensus from the top will keep us from seeking to build consensus from the bottom. 

Forced unity is as effective as teachers declaring their subject is "fun." If it is fun, we don't have to be told and if we are united nobody has to proclaim it. Civilized unity is as rare in human history as an appreciation for human diversity and it is a great gift to us from our political ancestors in the United States and Western Europe. Too often, in true ethnocentrism, we have taken that gift as part of some weird genetic condition as if the nations of Europe and North America could not descend into chaos and confusion. 

There can be no civilized life in chaos, but maintaining and defending civilization requires ideals for which people will lay down their lives. You cannot ask a man to give his life, fortune, or sacred honor for a culture and government that kills the innocent, ignores property rights, and mocks the very idea of honor. There must be a unifying creed to defend. 

Just governments cannot impose unity, but they can take measures to nurture it.  

The societies in the United States and the nations of Europe have done too little to foster unity. It isn't effective or safe for government to demand unity, but it can nurture it. We risk allowing our articulation of our unifying ideals to become platitudinous and our celebration of diversity to become absolute, but no man will give his life for an inspirational poster and a human resource directive.  

We desperately need to be more inclusive as a society, but this inclusion can only come when we understand the society we are all joining. Europe has allowed its shared values to be forgotten to the extent that they now rush out to forbid mosques and head scarves, but banning buildings and the burka is bullying and bluster covering up cultural bankruptcy.  

No place is this danger plainer than in the ideological contest between radical Islam and American values. Too often the opponents of our way of life have a position, while we have an inclination. We are united only because we have been and it would harm our property values if we failed. Americans can unite on what they don't want, but are too vague on what they do want.  

There is a growing and dangerous notion that we can unite around the idea of disunity. "We all disagree" is not a good slogan with which to rally the troops. Tolerance is excellent, but only amongst those who know the limits. These limits can only safely be taught from the cradle by the family and the local community. Simple hedonism is a worse principle for unity. Some Americans act as if the bad nightlife in Iran is enough to unite the rest of the world in opposition to the thugs that govern that state, but this is foolish.  

A mutual desire to party is an inadequate basis for a civil society. Libertines need liberty, but rarely have the courage or the ability to defend it. 

What are our first principles? Here are some: God gave us rights and not the state. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and human happiness. Those who dissent from these founding American ideas should not be persecuted, but are ideological outsiders. America is not a gender, a race, or a class of people. It is voluntary association of many peoples united around ideas. 

Americans should defend these ideas wherever they are questioned, but first we must understand them ourselves. We cannot lecture on liberty when most of our citizens have no clue what it means. We cannot urge the respect for the rule of law, when we flout our own written constitution.  

The American founders worked hard to bring one people out of many diverse groups. Their gift to us was the extent to which they succeeded, but they also fell short, leaving each generation a job to do. When Lincoln freed the slaves, it was part of finishing that work. When the early feminists pressed for women's suffrage, the job continued. This growing unity from diversity came from a commitment to our ideals and was not for its own sake. 

We have constantly expanded the tent of America, but it may be time to consider if the tent has become so broad that the cloth is stretched too thin. The man who denies rights to women cannot be a good American. The woman who asserts that rights come from the state has denied the basic ideals of our culture. The citizen who covets his neighbors wealth and uses the power of the state to take it has left the American way. 

The state cannot save these ideals, but we can. We can educate our children in them, we can speak up for our heritage, and we can debate those who deny their importance. Americans can vote for those who value our common culture and use it is a basis for any further expansion of the American tent. All of us long to see justice done, but it cannot be done if in trying to expand its reach we forget what it is. 

If many are to become one, we must recall what we wish that unity to be. It is not enough to say: "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If the Republic is to survive, we must know what these words mean and volunteer to those precious truths the full measure of our devotion: our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. 

This article originally appeared at the Washington Post's On Faith page. Click here to read the continuing conversation.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.