Sunday, April 24, 2011

Unity and Diversity in America

Now the whole earth had one language and one speech…And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:1,6-7). Is that which unites us as Americans greater than that which divides us as people?

There was a time I would have answered this question with a simple “yes.” But now, I’m not so sure. From the time of our founding we Americans recognized the tension between unity and diversity. Our national motto, proposed for the first Great Seal of the United States by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson in 1776; is “E Pluribus Unum.” The motto literally translates: “Out of the many, one.” The unity and diversity referred to in 1776 had to do with a unified republic composed of diverse, sovereign states.

Without delving into Civil War history or presenting the issues and intricacies of federalism, and at the risk of oversimplification; suffice it to say we remain one nation composed of fifty individual states. But what truly unites the people of a nation? As we think about the things which truly unite a people, let us honestly face whether or not these dynamics of unity are being weakened and strained. I do not say this list is exhaustive and I present these for your consideration in no particular order.

The first thing which fosters unity among people is language. From the biblical text above, we find the one distinguishing characteristic of the unified people of Genesis 11 was that they had “one language and one speech.” To bring disunity to them God simply introduced diversity into their speech. The oneness of the people was thwarted by unknown tongues. Confounded language brought confusion, disruption, and disunity. Unified language unifies people. Divided languages divides them. (This isn’t to suggest that the division from divided language cannot be overcome, but to say forthrightly that divided speech is a hindrance to unity, not a help to it.)

The second unifier of people is shared history. It is rather difficult for me to see how Americans can enjoy the fellowship of shared history when so many have no shared history to speak of, and those who actually do have what could be a shared history are totally ignorant of it. How many today in America are utterly in the dark when it comes to our country’s past? It is as though much of our citizenry was indeed born yesterday. They have no idea how we as a nation arrived to where we are today. Ignorance of the past can indeed be easily overcome. But not the way we’re educating our students today. History is being revised before our very eyes but most are too historically illiterate to recognize it. Revisionists are stealing our shared history.

What other shared things serve to unite a people? Religion comes to mind. It is indisputable that the early Puritan founders of our country were united in the Christian faith. This is hardly the case in America today. The once ubiquitous Christian consensus is now gone. How can a nation given to the privatization of religion--and its offspring known as self-styled spirituality--coupled with the influx of false world religions and cults; bring about the unification of a people? The nebulous god of Pluralism cannot see beyond the superficial and is therefore impotent to secure true and lasting unity on any conceivable significant level.

Common ethnicity unites. Despite the best, albeit misguided, efforts of the multiculturalists; people remain naturally tribal. One may question whether such inherent tribalism is the result of sin or not, but the fact remains that homes and neighborhoods, for the most part, remain ethnically homogeneous. It is my estimation that the unity of America is being sorely tested as many folks are identifying themselves, not as simply “Americans,” but first and primarily as Brown, Black, and White Americans. The “race card” is being played more today than at any other time in my lifetime. This is not a show of unity, but disunity.

A common enemy or threat, perceived or real, will also unite a people. Remember how the shared tragedy and common enemy of 9/11 united our country? Remember how short lived that unity was? Also, there is the idea of commerce. This is perhaps little more than interdependent self interest, but nothing unites a people like a robust economy and living the good life. Right? Well, not exactly. People in America are not of one mind as to what a nation should do with its wealth--or its poverty. Finally, a common vision, philosophy or worldview unites a people. But as I stated previously, one can see Americans dividing over philosophical differences. We have the phenomena of “red” and “blue” states, which when analyzed, is actually little more than rural versus urban America; all of this manifesting in the unending culture wars.

It is often said that diversity strengthens us. This is true, but only of a certain kind of diversity; perhaps a diversity of talents, skills, trades and the like. However, the story of Genesis 11 forcefully belies the secular mythology of a “strengthening diversity.” The biblical reality is this: Unity strengthens a people whereas diversity weakens them. Is that which unites Americans greater than that which divides us? I suppose time will tell.

But my hope for the future is not in a united, United States. Rather, my hope is in a united Church of Jesus Christ. Are there divisions in the Church? Of course. There always has been. But what unites the Church? Jesus Christ Himself. Is what--or shall we say “who”--unites the Church greater than that which divides her? Without question: YES!
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:20-21)


  1. Steve Griffin wrote: 'It is often said that diversity strengthens us. This is true, but only of a certain kind of diversity; perhaps a diversity of talents, skills, trades and the like.'

    CEH: Yes, I think that is right. One need only look at the military or at sports teams. Both have persons of diverse backgrounds and talents, but unity in purpose brings the diverse peoples together.

    I think the difference between the visions of those like President Obama vs. those from "Red State" America is they each have two fundamentally different philosophies of what America is all about. People like President Obama have a European mindset (i.e Ameeica could be like Europe, if she only would). Whereas,those who oppose him have a belief (accurate or not) of American traditionalism.

  2. Charlie,
    We are agreed: "the difference between the visions of those like President Obama vs. those from "Red State" America is they each have two fundamentally different philosophies of what America is all about."

    We are not speaking of "nuances" here, but FUNDAMENTAL differences. But which philosophy most closely resembles, the implicit if not explicit, philosophy of the Constitution? (Naturally, each side will say "Mine!")

    I refer to the Constitution because our nation is to be a Constitutional Republic. Isn't it? Yet, these two sides [there are more than two viewpoints...but for the sake of argument and simplicity we limit ourselves] seem profoundly at odds in their understanding of the Consitution's interpretation [a matter of hermeneutics] and subsequently, application.

    Correlatively, it also seems to me that one side diminishes the role/relevance of the Constitution in and of itself, or its authority; opting instead for judicial activism. (That I needn't state the side to which I refer speaks volumes!)

  3. I think you are over the target when you say its "a matter of hermeneutics".

    One thinks of so-called "reader response" method of interpretation, which is so popular in post-modern thinking. Which is to say, it doesn't matter so much what the author meant (I speak here of ANY piece of literature {including the Bible} --not necessarily the U.S. Constitution), but what the reader "gets out of it" (thus, treating literature like abstract art).

    And, while how and what a/some reader(s) might interpret from a given piece of literature is of some interest, of greater and more important interest (in my view) is what the author meant. (Nowhere moreso than in the Bible.)

    It seems to me, that a reader response method is more intuitive, than rational. And, while intuitive impressions, without a doubt, have there place in the human experience, ultimately a given piece of literature has a rational construction to it in that the process of writing is about the arranging of words in logical relationships to form rational communication.

    This is not to suggest that all writing is syllogistic and literalistic prose, for metaphorical writing does deepen our understanding of many things. But, it is to acknowledge that real communication is always (at least) two-sided: sender & receiver.

    Therefore, when one philosophy doesn't regard what the authors of the U.S. Constitution meant*, but what it means to us, they are surely wrong-headed.

    *(Judge Bork says, who could know what they "intended", so he doesn't consider "original intent" when he is judging, but rather "original meaning". Which is to say, what would be the ordinary contemporaneous understanding of a given phrase?, for example: "the right to bear arms shall not be infringed".)

  4. This article brings to mind one of my favorite and recently coined oxymorons,

    "United We Stand....Diversity Is Our Strength"

  5. Thanks Steve once again for a thought-provoking article. Yes, may the true, elect church of God be united as in times gone by, when believers were in 'one accord'...

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, for thinking through these things with me.

      Blessings to you and yours.