On July 4, 1776, thirteen colonies on the East Coast of what became the United States declared independence from mother England, thus giving citizens ever since a great occasion. Their act represented only a beginning of an experiment with which citizens have been tampering and venturing ever since. Those who celebrate religious diversity and pluralism especially have good reasons to join the celebration, but they are not helped by those who see both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as finished products, faultless documents written by titans who knew exactly what to do about the religion of Others. (Let me henceforth capitalize that as a kind of technical term).
Thus debates over whether America was founded as a “Christian Nation,” whether it is one today, whether it must be one tomorrow, and whether “secularists” are taking over or have taken over, color much argument in these times of intense political polarization. Such debates, though in differing forms and waged by diverse casts of characters, tend to start on the foundation of a notion held by many, that we have simply fallen from and lost the perfect solutions of the Founders. (Let me capitalize that word, too.) More fruitful are debates which reflect an observation that the Founders “solved the religious problem by not solving the religious problem.”
They could not have “solved” it, and we cannot either. But they could creatively address it, and many of them did in ways that we can celebrate on Independence Day.
Their problem, as old as human history, was how to live with and deal with the Other, the individual or group that was different from their own. The drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution wrestled with the problem all through their subsequent lives. Some did try to evade it by pretending it away, chiefly by celebrating their own belief-system or religious community as being superior, if not perfect, and then excluding and opposing the Other. Most colonists who came from the British Isles or places like the Netherlands, dominated, and therefore in nine of the thirteen colonies “established” religion by law, and maintained it with coercive force.
Most of the signers of the Declaration were unfamiliar with, uneasy with, or simply “anti-“ those who were the Other. Benjamin Franklin, who has the reputation of being most tolerant, according to his biographer David Freeman Hawke “welcomed neither felons, Negroes, Catholics, nor Germans flooding into Pennsylvania.”
“Why should Pennsylvania,” he asked, “founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?” Needless to say, he later moderated those views. Thomas Jefferson, the other signer equally admired by pro-tolerance, interfaith-favoring citizens, in public voiced disturbing views of Native American religion and, in private, unsettling views of the Other, including those held by orthodox Christians. Yet he left a legacy worthily celebrated each July 4 and the 364 other days of our years.
What happened to bring about change? To answer that question is to begin to publicize the need for and the value of inter-faith relations in a time when Muslims and “immigrants” and others often play the role of the Other. The first fact about the majority of the colonial Founders, being English and Protestant, was that in the colonies they had never met the Other. For one example out of many; outside Maryland and Pennsylvania they would never meet Catholics. How did change come about? They began to know those whose religions were strange to them, beginning in colonies like Pennsylvania. They had to make common causes with the Other to win the War of Independence. They began to read texts by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others whose views of the Other later turned out to be more helpful and even world-changing. Through two centuries they fashioned movements and organizations to advance what came to be called “interfaith dialogue.” They changed because of interfaith marriages, mass media imates—let it be said—and their mobility from isolated existence to pluralist communities, etc. etc.
Every Independence Day more of the Others bump into each other and face common problems. They, we, have begun to learn that religion factors into most inter-group and many inter-personal encounters, and find new reasons to converse with and seek to understand the Other who, today, maybe one’s daughter-in-law, college room mate, fellow Democrat or Republican, and neighbor, all of whom get to address religion in a republic whose founders did not solve “the religious problem” but who came to face it often in ways that are rich in promise to us who celebrate July 4 once more.
Above Right: Special distinguished contributor to the Parliament newsletter, Martin E. Marty is a Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. A prolific author, Marty is kmown as “The Dean of Religious History” in the United States. A prolific author, Marty continues to lead conversations on pressing socio-religious issues in contemporary historical contexts. He is the writer of the popular “Sightings” column.