One from Many: Exercising Faith in Public

By Gary Peluso-Verdend

On July 30, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the bill that made “In God We Trust” the national motto. This was the first official national motto and replaced the unofficial one, which goes back to the Franklin-Jefferson-Adams era, E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. At the same time in the 1950s, America was building a nuclear arsenal to counter godless Soviet socialism—an arsenal big enough that by the 1980s everyone acknowledged the full use of it would “make the rubble bounce.”

In God we trust? I don’t know how any nation can make that claim, let alone the republic with the world’s greatest military and economic power.

Now, please don’t number me among those who want to ban religion from public life. I’ve spent much of my career thinking about, teaching, preaching, and now writing about how people of faith do and should exercise their faith in public.

But the “in God we trust” motto has always been either a shield or a weapon. Today, with the “godless” Soviet Union decomposing in history’s dustbin, “In God We Trust” is used in America’s internal identity and moral conflicts. In these conflicts, “Christians” of a certain kind cast themselves on the moral side and progressives (religious or not), adherents of other faiths, and atheists lumped together on the immoral side.

The Religious Right wants to ensconce “in God we trust” in classrooms, courtrooms, and license plates. They argue that progressives and secularists want to banish God from public life. And the hidden argument is: anyone else’s God ought to be banned.

However, I don’t buy that we, the American people or our government, trust in God. I cannot see the connection between trust in God and support for retributive justice, inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants, discriminatory legislation, the fear represented by over 300 million guns in the hands of citizens, and casting opponents as evil enemies. This contradiction between professed belief and action/policy/practice leads me to call “In God We Trust” a false claim.

During the Civil War (April 1863), President Lincoln, in response to those who claimed God for partisan purposes, wrote wisely, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” Does the U.S., does any nation, trust a God with his/her own purposes? “In God We Trust”? “We don’t trust your God, and sometimes I’m not sure about mine” might be closer to the practiced truth.

“Out of many, one,” E Pluribus Unum, rather than “in God we trust” is more aligned with the nation’s challenge to become the kind of nation we’ve aspired to be, when thinking and acting according to our best morally and spiritually-shaped selves. Our national challenge is to form a more perfect union—of the most diverse collection of persons ever in human history seeking to be one democratic nation—for the sake of justice, defense, the common welfare, the blessings of liberty, and peace (you’ll recognize these public virtues from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution).

Out of many, one.

That is our aspiration, and that is our challenge. It has always been our challenge. It was a challenge when the franchise was limited to propertied white males, with all others excluded from democratic participation. Then the franchise was broadened, always by struggle, to include other white men, then persons of African descent, women, indigenous persons, and persons of Asian descent.

But the fear of practicing democracy in a “one from many” nation resulted in Jim Crow, with its many modes of voter suppression, discrimination, and domestic terrorism. And in 1924, a completely white Congress got very nervous about the “thinning of the white racial stock” and passed a highly discriminatory immigration law that held until 1965.

Then, in 1965, a new immigration law opened the nation to a wider range of nationalities than ever before. Between that law, the end of the Vietnam War (and refugees from the war coming to North America), and the turmoil fueled by U.S. policies that drove many Central Americans to the U.S. southern border, the demographics of the U.S. have radically changed in the short period of 55 years.

Add stories to the demographic changes. Stories of previously suppressed ugly and shameful truths about our past, and beautiful stories from marginalized communities being told more often in more places with more listeners.

Today we Americans are comprised of nearly as many skin colors, body types, and facial features as there are on the earth.

Today we have more religious diversity, with current adherents of those religions, than any other developed nation. While there is a great deal of churn in the American religious landscape, and some erstwhile church buildings are now homes or restaurants or condos, religion in the U.S. is a long way from being mostly museum-vintage. We are religiously diverse.

We do not have the same origin stories. We came here over the Bering Strait many millennia ago, in ships-planes-and-by-foot in recent centuries and crammed into slave ships on the Middle Passage for more than 200 years. And our history books and Thanksgiving fictions are just now cracking open to telling more complicated and inclusive stories.

Today, we are Red or Blue, with relatively little Purple. We distinguish ourselves from one another by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, gender identity, religion (as well as a growing number of “don’t need it”), Trump enthusiast/traditional conservative/moderate/progressive/democratic socialist, big city/small town, insured/uninsured, poor/wealthy. I’m sure I’ve omitted a bunch of other salient divisions.

Divided we are. And religion has certainly contributed to our divisions, especially Christians’ radically different visions of what Christianity is and what the nation should be.

However, despite the divisions among religious people, those of us who claim to be religious or spiritual have plenty we could contribute toward “one from many” without doubling down on “In God We Trust.” We could cultivate a more perfect union in which diversities are accepted and celebrated.

We could contribute to a culture that values:

  • Common humanity. How many races are there? One. The human race the one where each of us shares 99.9 percent of our DNA with others (3 million genetic variations, yes, but 99.9 percent in common).
  • Inherent human dignity—a dignity that is not granted by any nation but is to be respected in every nation, regardless of one’s status as citizen, refugee, asylum seeker, immigrant.
  • Humility—I love the Muslim teaching that human beings need to pray five times a day as a constant reminder that we are mortals, and not God.
  • Common earth, a common home—taking the long perspective, generations long, making decisions by considering our children and our children’s children, times five.
  • Human beings created as persons for community, not as individuals to maximize their self-interest and net worth.
  • Joining compassion with the Golden Rule as standards for how to treat each other.
  • Learning how to practice restorative justice more than giving in to our brain patterned disposition for retribution.
  • Accountability to a moral/ethical power greater than the state and its laws. There is a higher law that is part of the universe’s long arc bending toward justice.
  • Meaningful penance and forgiveness in public life (and not one without the other).
  • Bridge building to other communities.

We could show, by word and example, how to be and value the Many and the One.

We could.

Over this 2020 year, Phillips Theological Seminary and the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice have created the One from Many services as one place to do that kind of sharing—and, we hope, to en-courage each of us to find ways to be more of the people we are called to be.

Over the past several years, and especially after the past few weeks, my optimism about the near future of America has diminished. But I keep being hopeful that we who consider ourselves spiritual or religious will draw on the wells of our traditions to support the “one from many.”

I hope we witness. I hope we teach. I hope we will live our stories of compassion, social justice, equality, upholding human dignity, humility, asking for and being granted forgiveness, tolerance (if not acceptance), and love.

We could.

I hope.