By Brad Canham
For added inspiration to oppose the executive order limiting immigration from targeted Muslim countries you can look in a surprising place – the back side of a dollar bill. There you’ll find the Great Seal of the United States of America. Within the Great Seal, the Latin “E Pluribus Unum” (From many, one) is on a ribbon held in the hooked beak of the symbol of America, the bald eagle.
Moreover, if you look at any US coin, you will find the phrase E Pluribus Unum. The Coinage Act of 1873 continues to require the motto, by law, on all coins in the United States. Not surprisingly, neither the phrase nor the Great Seal excludes Muslims “nisi Muslims,” (except Muslims), or any other group.
In fact, you’ll find exactly the opposite.
Exclusion is in direct opposition to the core spirit of both the Great Seal and E Pluribus Unum – and America itself. The Muslim ban is un-American. Americans of conscience, Americans for One America, reject it.
The reason for the “inclusiveness” at the core of both symbols is traditional and modern. E Pluribus Unum and the Great Seal are symbols of, above all, American unity.
E Pluribus Unum was adopted as a de facto American “motto” in 1776, traditionally representing the merging of many states into one nation. It also signaled a rejection, by the founding fathers, of hundreds of years of European state-sponsored religious persecution and bloodshed.
The contemporary meaning has focused on the concept of the “melting pot,” wherein out of many peoples, religions, languages, traditions and backgrounds American’s are one nation, one people.
In 1956, the phrase “In God We Trust” was adopted as the “official” United States motto (note, it does not specify any religion’s God). And yet, E Pluribus Unum, or plurality, continues at the center of the American Experiment and remains a bedrock American value. Essentially plurality means “we the people.”
More important than coins, mottos, or traditions, E Pluribus Unum is a living societal “norm” in the form of a promise.
Plurality is the value in the American liberal democratic tradition, which most exalts individual freedom and autonomy. In other words, plurality is the “American promise” we are all free to individually pursue the liberty and equality of individual conscience (as long as it doesn’t harm another).
It is also a promise that we are individually free from fear of prosecution for pursuing our consciences. While plurality as a value is a promise to all, the focus of the promise of plurality is on individuals, not a broad and abstract idea of freedom imposed on the nation. It is not a passive ideal, but a living one within our daily lives.
The framers of the Constitution brilliantly understood plurality’s lived focus on individual freedom, does not weaken nor exclude a communal morality. In fact, plurality does just the opposite, it strengthens communal morality.
The reason is, individually, we understand by supporting each other’s freedom, to worship, to pursue individual notions of “the good life” – no matter how odd or uncomfortable – we also are supporting our own freedom to do the same.
And in doing so, together, we also actively and daily navigate an agreement to a “moral consensus.” Pressed on all side by people who think and act differently than us, we exercise the muscle of plurality by extending to our fellow American’s – as different as they are – the neighborly, but sacred notion “live and let live.”
Because America is a melting pot we, out of habit and necessity, constantly flex this muscle of plurality. In this way, our democracy is renewed and made stronger. This exercising of the muscle of E Pluribus Unum is almost unconscious, but it makes the character of American pluralism uniquely powerful and binds the nation together. In holding to E Pluribus Unum, Americans agree to not impose any particular version of “How to live” as a requirement for living “the good life.”
So, as Americans, we may uniquely pursue a radical freedom to worship, love, and live as we wish, where we wish, who we wish, when we wish, and why we wish. Without the fear of persecution.
Granted, pluralism is a radical concept of liberal democracy. America’s unique pluralism is a fantastic experiment. Moreover, skeptics have described it as foolish and idealistic since the founding of the nation. And yet, whenever those in power have tested those waters, however good intentioned or seemingly justified by fear or “reality,” history has always judged those dark actions as a weakening of American democracy, un-American, and unconstitutional.
The historical bans all ultimately are viewed as repellent when seen through the long-term lens of American pluralism, whether it’s a ban against Jewish immigrants prior to World War II, interning Japanese-American during World War II, McCarthyism, or forcing any kind of unequal treatment based on religion, color, creed, or national origin, on groups: Indigenous Americans, blacks, browns, Catholics, or Irish, etc…or now Muslims.
The reason is, as surely as E Pluribus Unum is inscribed on every coin, the value of pluralism is uniquely inscribed within the soul of the American character. It is what makes America, a uniquely American democracy. The ideal of plurality serves as a long-term safeguard against the short-term fears and impulses of an imperfect people.
In this way, core to American character, the promise of plurality is also a bright ray of light, a striving forward, an ideal worth fighting for, continually illuminating America’s unique democracy.
The order to ban Muslims ignores and forgets the spirit and function of this fundamental American value carved into our national character. It replaces the long-term idealism of America in favor of short-term fear. And fear, powerful as it may be, is the weaker choice. Fear is a poor substitute for the strength of who we are individually and as a nation.
That is why many Americans find it repellent. We resolutely reject it. We reject fear. We stand by this fundamental American value. We choose plurality. We choose, written on the coins in your pocket, E Pluribus Unum, “we the people.”
All the people.