You’re in a quandary. Frozen in indecision. Confronted by two equally valid choices. The moment freezes. Your life hangs in the balance, waiting for you to choose. What to do? You could flip for it. So you pull out a coin, and consider the future. Heads -- “In God We Trust”, and you take one path; tails -- “E Pluribus Unum”, the other.
Two choices. Two paths. Two slogans. Random chance. But if you stop to think about it, those two slogans depict vastly different ways to look at and understand the world and your place in it. On the face of the coin, we recognize the existence of a higher power, in whatever way we choose, and look to it for guidance, trusting its judgment over our own. But turn the coin over, and we recognize the wisdom and power of community, the value of working side by side with the many to achieve a common goal.
Yet both of these ideas are fused in the tokens that we use to denote value to one another. Both of these ideas pass through our hands every day. And when you use that coin to purchase something of value from another person, you trade, not just in money, but in ideas as well. Not just one of them, but the two ideas together. Either one without the other would be unbalanced, just as one branch of our government becomes unbalanced without the constraining influence of the other two.
There is another form of balance in our political world as well, one that has become as polarized as the two streams of thought that flank that coin in your hand, one that has come to mirror the sentiments that your toss will choose between. Although there are more than just the two parties we have come to focus on, just as there are likely more than just the two paths before you, one of them holds fast to the idea on the face of our coin, while the other to that on its tail.
To me, the core philosophy espoused by the Republican Party aligns well with the recognition of, and trust in a higher power. This is the idea that would illuminate the path we would tread if our coin came up heads. But because it has chosen to publicly restrict the embodiment of that higher power to the non-specific category of Christian belief, the party also excludes some of the population. In contrast, the Democratic Party, whose light would illuminate the other path, has chosen to focus on the power of unrestrictive community, believing that each person’s relationship to a higher power is a personal matter that should not intrude on the workings of government.
But although the people chosen to lead these two parties appeared to hold to a view of the world and their place in it which mirrored that of their party’s philosophy, a closer reading of one them reveals a far more interesting story. This was presented in the transcript of a 2004 interview with the man who has just been elected President, Barack Hussein Obama.
And that brings me back to that coin we’re holding.
Translated, the Latin phrase on the coin’s obverse means, “Out of Many, One”, but Pierre-Eugene Du Simitier, the man who had requested it, repurposed the sentiment from a literary comment on the blending of colors in a particular cheese, to a pluralistic vision of the nation being founded.
But Du Simitier’s Latin phrase can also refer to a singular member of a group. Used in this way, E Pluribus Unum supports the idea of American Exceptionalism, which holds that the US, having been specially selected by God, can do no wrong. While patriotically powerful, this idea blinds those who accept it to evidence to the contrary, and suggests that because of this position it is only natural that the US should dominate the world. It also entices those who subscribe to this idea to assign the same special status to whatever group they belong to in their spiritual lives. This interpretation also transforms that coin in your hand into a double-headed one. The toss would be fixed.
In the early 20th Century, the pluralistic interpretation inspired many European immigrants who saw the Statue of Liberty hold her welcoming lamp beside Ellis Island, Emma Lazarus’ golden door to their new home. A play in 1908 made The Melting Pot a common description of the resulting face of New York City, with people from a growing number of nations all becoming simply Americans.
Adopting the language and customs of those around you is an effective way to sidestep the animosity you might encounter if they were to realize that you were different – that you came from another country, were raised in a different culture, and had a different set of beliefs. To do so while retaining your personal integrity means living a double life, with one version of yourself on public display while the other is closeted away for private moments with those with whom you can share that precious secret. You might speak English in public, but a different tongue at home or among friends, for example, or you might dress or act differently depending on where you are.
But this sort of intentional duality is not limited to those who are new to this country. A great number of people who were born and raised here have also taken on this cloak of homogeneity. Some do it to hide their beliefs; some still do it to hide their sexual nature; and I would be very surprised if there weren’t also some who do it to hide their politics.
There is a distinction among people that is not generally spoken about, even though the effects of which group you are part of are so far ranging. Call it the Experiential Divide. On one side are people who have lived their lives among those who are like themselves, to the extent that they cannot fathom what it might be like to be anything other than that which defines their community. On the other, are people who, for one reason or another, have had extensive exposure to and interaction with, people who are unlike themselves, and who consequently have at least an inkling of what it is like to be one of them.
More subtly, there are labels that we use to represent some of the things that might otherwise expose differences, differences that may not even be discernable to those beyond the reach of the label. Identifying yourself as being part of one of the major families of religious or spiritual path is a kind of shorthand, and one that can lead to misunderstandings. Politicians who publicly profess to being Christian, for example, could mean a great number of things by that claim, but unless they provide further detail, each voter is free to translate it as he or she wishes. People seeking public office in the US often use this shorthand to appeal to those of all flavors of Christianity, even though there are vast differences among them. Being more specific would only serve to divide their potential base of Christian supporters, while stating it at all could alienate voters who have experienced hatred from any subset of Christianity.
Barack Obama has stated that he is a Christian. Opposition researchers working for the Republican Party have dutifully explored this area of his life so that they could attempt to use the details against him by focusing on specific people and incidents from his past.
Interviewer Cathleen Falsani, however, was not interested in causing harm. Her interest was instead to explore Mr. Obama’s spiritual side, so that she and her readers could know more about him.