What is Community in a Pluralistic Society?

Ideology and unity have a complicated relationship we must confront.

| April 2019

Apotheosis of Washington detail by Brumidi Constantino. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Michael Edward McNeil.

Let’s start at the obvious place, the motto printed on every dollar bill: E pluribus unum—out of many, one. This was the original motto of the United States, not “In God we trust,” and it referred to the formation of one nation out of the separate states. However, the history of this country has involved a much more comprehensive forging of one out of many. It has been the forging into unity of people literally from everywhere. And what is this unity that was forged from so many distinct and diverse individuals? It is the nation we call “the United States of America,” of course, but the unity we speak of is more than just becoming a taxpayer or being eligible to vote. It is a sense of belonging and identity, of being an integral part of something that is also an integral part of you, and of commitment to a core set of distinctive values. Indeed, the essential definition of “American” is one who is committed to American values. We call this unity we speak of “community in diversity.” To know what it is we must understand it in the context of history and see it in contrast with its opposite.

Throughout history, what sorts of things have united people into a shared national identity? For some peoples, it has been a mystical attachment to land, like Mother Russia. More ominously, it has sometimes been race or “blood.” Sometimes a shared religion gives a sense of identity, as in Pakistan or Iran. All nations forge identity through a shared history, especially a history of struggle against a common enemy. You and I both heard from our parents and others of their generation how the Second World War united the country with itself and its allies in a campaign that, literally, delivered the world from evil.

A few other countries have a different kind of story to tell, one of unity arising from plurality. In the first book of his history, Livy tells of the early days of Rome when it was a small settlement adjoining the malarial swamps of the Tiber River, surrounded by larger, wealthier, more powerful, and intermittently hostile neighbors. The first thing Rome had to do was to have a sufficiently large population, so King Romulus invited anyone and everyone to come to Rome, slave or free—anyone destitute or displaced or seeking a new start. No questions asked. Keep your nose clean, be willing to work—and fight when necessary—and you could be a Roman. So men from all around who needed refuge or a clean slate came to Rome. By such means Rome grew quickly and started to challenge its neighbors, and, truly, the rest is history.

The founders of the United States, as classically educated gentlemen of the day, were certainly familiar with the story of Rome’s beginnings. Perhaps it gave them a thought, the most audacious thought ever in the history of nations—namely, that a people could find their unity in an idea—not geography, not blood, not religion, but an idea. All sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and with diverse beliefs could forge an identity based on this idea. The idea was that the very things that divided the people of other nations could be the greatest strength of the United States.

At that time, the most divisive thing was religion. Intellectuals of the Enlightenment, like the founders, were vividly and painfully aware of the religious wars and persecutions that had soaked Europe in blood during the two previous centuries. From 1618 to 1648, Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other with holy fervor in the Thirty Years’ War. Large districts were left essentially depopulated. The rancor continued unabated, even after the dazed survivors declared the Peace of Westphalia. As recently as 1780, the anti-Catholic Gordon riots had engulfed London.

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This is called civic nationalism, and it is indeed a fairly new thing, but not as new as 1776. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, founded in 1659, was a civic nation, although only about 15% of its population were citizens. (Then again, only about 6% of Americans could vote in the 1790 elections.) It had all the trimmings: constitutional monarchy, a parliament that not only made laws but elected the king, guaranteed religious freedom, regional and provincial parliaments who sent representatives to the national parliament, the right to form political parties for any purpose, and even the right of armed rebellion against a king who broke the constitution. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth didn't have defensible borders, to say nothing of a deep and wide ocean, and so it was carved up by three neighboring empires around the time the American and French revolutions were creating civic nations from imperial colonies and a dynastic monarchy most of whose subjects neither spoke nor understood French. Of course, a civic nation is a straight-up empire or worse to the people it excludes: free blacks, Natives, later Chinese and Japanese. (Enslaved blacks didn't even count as human, a thing not always true in slave societies.) Those exclusions have come to an end one by one. For that matter, the Civil War itself was a conflict between civic and ethnic nationalists, and our time is another such conflict, nastier in rhetoric but much less violent in action. There is every reason for hope.

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