Students of history and/or coin collectors well know the phrase ”e pluribus unum” as our national motto. The phrase is found on currency and on the national seal and translated into English it means “Out of many, one.” Our country has long been called a “melting pot” or more recently a “mosaic” of people representing various ethnic and national heritages that come together to form one nation. Implied in this motto is the value of a common good that all citizens of our country share, a common good comprised of freedoms and opportunities for well-being and personal achievement. We celebrated this common good and our nation’s ability to make “one” out of the “many” this past weekend; yet the “one” is threatened by various forms of Christianity today.
I preached a sermon this past Sunday entitled “One Nation Under Many Gods” which stated my support for religious liberty for all people, regardless of whether they share my beliefs or not. I stated that, unlike many Christians who seek to declare the United States a “Christian nation” and desire the government to force their religious values upon others, I feel no need for government to validate my religion or to prop up my beliefs. I believe that Christians concerned about the increasing religious diversity of our country are concerned about the wrong gods. More threatening to the Christian faith than Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, New Age beliefs or atheism are the other “gods” in our culture that we give little or no thought to. As I mentioned, I define a “god” or “idol” as anything we give more allegiance to than God, and I believe the greatest threats to our faith and all faiths are the idols of violent dehumanization of others (“it’s okay for others to be killed, tortured or hurt as long as I’m not personally connected with them), consumerism (“you are what you buy”) and utilitarianism (“whatever is easiest is best and self-sacrifice is to be avoided at all costs).
I preach without notes or a manuscript, so occasionally I unintentionally leave out parts of my sermon prepared ahead of time. Sometimes this is for the best—not everything I think about needs to be said, but other times I leave out things I really wanted to say. Sunday I left out one of the “gods” or “idols” that I believe threatens our faith—individualism. We enjoy such freedom as individuals here in America that I think it is easy for us to privilege our own needs and/or wants above what is best for our community or country. Obviously our freedoms need to be guarded, but freedom without responsibility towards others is selfish and destructive.
The struggle over the needs of the individual vs. the needs of the community is not new to Christians (think of Paul’s discussion of the subject in his letter to the Romans). In the class I’m teaching on Sunday mornings about the practice and beliefs of the Disciples of Christ, a new member who comes out of a different tradition remarked how shocking it was to learn how much freedom we have in our denomination. To her, it seemed like an anything goes free-for-all. I explained to her (in language not dissimilar to the apostle Paul’s) that although we have freedom as individual believers, we operate within a covenant or sacred agreement as a church and a denomination. The struggles we wrestle with over how much freedom we have in Christ are analogous to the struggles over the limits of freedom in the civic arena. At times, these two struggles overlap.
The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, writes in his essay “American Politics and the Dissenting Protestant Tradition” (in the collection of essays One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics) that so-called “free church” traditions among American Protestants have greatly shaped our national character. Often the influence has been for the good, but not always. He notes that Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians have a greater understanding of the common good than do “dissenting Protestants” or churches with a large emphasis upon individual salvation and morality. (Disciples straddle the line between mainline and “dissenting” Protestants.) Such an emphasis upon the individual from a religious point of view can translate into politics that focus solely upon an individual’s right to act apart from the effect those actions have on others. Poverty is thus the fault of the individual’s choices rather than systemic societal ills. Unilateral foreign policy becomes acceptable regardless of the rest of the world’s opinion or interests.
The current debates over health care illustrate this point. Is the freedom of those wealthy enough to afford quality medical care worth more than the health and well-being of the millions who cannot do so? Is there not a way to protect the freedom of the individual and the common good? It seems to me that what we need is a vibrant Christian faith to address the needs of our society at this time—one that protects the God-given freedoms of the individual but also robustly challenges its members to work towards common solutions to real-world problems. Individualism run amok can become its own idol, a god that prevents us from loving our neighbors as God commands us to do. We need a Christianity that can begin from an understanding of church as “one body with many parts” and move out into our country to help live out “e pluribus unum.”
Grace and Peace,