E Deo Pluribus

This is the long version of a petition I submitted to Change.org but haven’t yet started circulating since I need to trim it down

 

TLDR

This petition iterates on past attempts to modify the pledge of allegiance with a simple yet significant change of tack: instead of removing under God, replace it with from many.

  • I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, from many, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Learning from the Past

Past attempts to roll back “under God” reflected a failure to appreciate the consensus self-conception of America.

First, the 1954 addition was motivated by a desire to make a statement. That we did not merely passively exist as a nation, but actively stood for something. In other words, it was first and foremost a declaration of American exceptionalism, with faith a distant second. To roll back that faith is hard enough, piling American exceptionalism on top of it all but impossible.

Second, Americans find it easier to back away from a negative when accompanied by a different step towards a greater positive:

  • when the states balked to ratify the Constitution, the Founding Fathers didn’t simply edit the document inline but formalized the amendment mechanism and enshrined the Bill of Rights
  • as the civil war drew to a close, Lincoln didn’t simply outlaw slavery but positively proclaimed black freedom and equality through the 14th amendment
  • as the returns from its missions diminished, NASA retreated from lunar landings only to leapfrog to Mars
  • Apple’s 1998 released of the iMac controversially removed the floppy drive, superseded by new USB ports (OK this one’s a bit frivolous, but still illustrates the principle)

Simply put, turning the clock backwards to 1954 is not how America rolls.

Finally, the framing of the debate as a rolling back of religion (and especially Christianity) flies in the face of precedent set byLincoln at Gettysburg and needlessly antagonizes a significant demographic. Lincoln himself, who fought for goals far more noble and less abstract, knew there was never a cause so lofty as to excuse dumb politics.

The solution, then, is to make the removal of “under God” secondary to addition of something superior:

  • I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, from many, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Why Those Specific Words

The phrase “from many, one” comes directly from the Great Seal of the United States: “E Plurubus Unum“. As the only words on the front of the Great Seal, approved way back in 1776 by a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, they literally carry the Founding Fathers seal of approval.

Moreover, they cut directly to the heart of what makes America exceptional. In every generation, the new wave of immigrants would threaten to tear the cultural fabric apart:

In each case, the process of wrestling with these forces made our country stronger, not weaker. Today, Appalachians now call themselves “real Americans,” and when’s the last time you heard someone express anxieties about greasy eye-talians, Irish loyalty to the Pope, or treasonous Japanese? The American paradox is that indivisibility rests on a foundation of fragmentation.

Finally, the difference between removing vs. replacing the words “under God” is subtle yet immensely significant. Removal puts the religious on the defensive, who react like they are under attack. Whether that is the intent is irrelevant, in politics what matters is how one feels. Whereas replacement does not undermine the integrity of religion in America, it simply posits something even more integral. God hasn’t been demoted, just eclipsed. The pledge doesn’t mention him for the same reason it doesn’t mention baseball or mom’s apple pie. Still all-American, just not the most American.

Why Now?

The nation is on the brink of a transformational election. In Drumpf we have an unpredictable and serially underestimated demagogue, campaigning on an explicitly anti-immigration platform appealing to white nativism, within striking distance of the White House.

Some would say now is the worst possible moment to risk inflaming the culture war with a petition like this one. And that would would be true for most any other similar petition, but this particular one aspires not to inflame, but to resolve some of the tension underlying the culture wars.

The 2 books most valuable in understanding how our democracy came to its current fragile state are The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance*. Both illuminate – Levin from the outside, Vance from inside – how the social and economic cohesion of the post-war era broke down over the subsequent decades. While this fragmentation has opened greater opportunity for many, it has left less educated whites in Appalachia a sense of despair, leavened only by nostalgia for the “good old days”. Levin in particular makes clear that those days not only cannot return, but that they shouldn’t – plurality is not a threat, but an asset.

If this perspective were universally recognized, the steam would dissipate right out of Drumpf’s campaign. Unfortunately it requires respectful yet direct engagement of his supporters, which accusations of bullying – regardless of accuracy – simply doesn’t do. If anything, it invites contempt among the types of voters who respond to dominance. It hasn’t even won over suburban white women.

Amending the pledge does not threaten Christians to relinquish their values, but challenges them to recognize ours. It uses the very words of the Founding Fathers to directly yet respectfully challenge those who called themselves the Tea Party on their own terms.

Will this sway diehard Drumpf supporters? Probably not. But might it swing those who would only vote for him to spite Hillary that it’s not she, but we whom she represents – plural, innovative, looking ahead – that always have, and will again, make America great.

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Note: Preparing for Pushback

You can’t make everybody happy, and this is proposal is likely to draw more than its share of fire. There are some who will never change their belief, but we can at least brace against certain lines of attack:

  • the straw man: “under God” shouldn’t change because it doesn’t violate the establishment clause. Correct: it doesn’t – and is not cited here as a reason for the change. The reason is that religion is peripheral to what makes America great, whereas our plurality is central.
  • the zero-sum gamers: many will question the value of plurality, skeptical that it is code for shifting power from one group to another. The answer is literally staring you in the mirror: your eyes. Neither the left nor right eye are better than the other, nor should be. Only by virtue of their differentiated coexistence is 3D depth perception possible, demonstrating that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • the historians: yes, the original focus of the word “many” was the 13 colonies/states, not the “many” types of people living therein. That said, the phrase was originally lifted from The Gentlemen’s Magazine, which collected articles from many sources into one periodical. So yeah, if the reference can shift from publications to states, then it can shift again to people.
  • the translators: the motto E Pluribus Unum is often translated as “out of many, one” rather than “from many, one” This is really just a matter of flow – if we’re gonna swap out words, let’s at least preserve the existing cadence. For similar reasons, “one nation, from many” is less disruptive than “from many, one nation”
  • the grammarians: the wording “one country, from many, …” may sound like it means “composed of many sub-territories” rather than “from a variety of ethnicities/languages/cultures/religions/lifestyles” etc. I’ll concede this is slightly awkward, but it’s intended meaning isn’t that much of a stretch. It’s certainly not as confusing as the Star Spangled Banner – “Jose can you see by the donzerly light”

*Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates is also essential reading for this election, but its focus of humanizing black America and their plight of fear puts it outside the scope of this discussion

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