AS HAPPENSTANCE WOULD have it, my turn in the rotation of writers for these “Issues of Faith” columns falls on the day that our country inaugurates its 45th president.
As such, I thought it would be an appropriate time to bring forward three foundational precepts of our “national faith,” namely religious liberty, religious toleration and religious pluralism.
Ours was the first nation to experiment in a far-reaching manner with these principles, values and ideals.
No other nation before us had ever tried to construct its civic life with these as the central organizing principles.
No other nation had put forward “religious pluralism” as the source of its unity.
No other nation had as its original motto the words “E pluribus unum” — “Out of many, one.”
As author Forrest Church writes: “E pluribus unum cut directly against the grain of all previous human experience. ‘One over many’ was familiar to history, as were ‘over many a few’ and ‘some apart from others,’ but ‘out of many, one’ had no historical precedent” (“The American Creed”).
Nor had any other nation sought to disestablish religious institutions — that is, to separate the institutions of religion and government, as opposed to having the government support and sponsor a given religion.
And no other nation had declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men [which was understood generically at the time to mean all humans] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of these words, also added this statement in his first inaugural address: “Equal and exact justice for all … of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.”
That these principles of religious liberty and equality came to be at the center of our civic life may be due largely to the particular and peculiar historical circumstances in which they were formed.
Originally, the various groups forming the colonies desired religious freedom, but it was religious freedom to establish their own religion, not, in most cases, religious freedom for others or religious freedom for all.
However, historical circumstances created a need to join together in common cause to combat a common enemy that had its own established religion.
Thus, some would describe the development of the separation of the institutions of religion and government and the principles of religious liberty and religious pluralism that it promotes as a happy accident, and others would describe it as a divinely guided plan.
But whatever the case, once in place, these principles, values and ideals seemed so right that they have influenced, and continue to influence, nations around the world — and this despite the fact that they have so often been abridged in practice in our country.
A question for us on this Inauguration Day is whether we as the nation that began this experiment with the triple values of religious liberty, religious tolerance and religious pluralism are still committed to carrying on this experiment.
Are these still the fundamentals of our national faith?
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected].