Benjamin Franklin is credited with a clever saying that drew attention to the necessity of unity among our Founding Fathers. He opined, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Of course, he meant a literal hanging, the sentence imposed on those convicted of treason against the British Crown. As the first Americans stood against their British overlords, it was absolutely essential for them to be united, shoulder to shoulder, resolutely defending against anything that would erode their essential unity.
Today, those of us who have inherited the country they formed are in need of the same dedication to a reasonable unity. Simply put, we’re falling apart.
We are more divided than ever politically, with political peers themselves at war with one another. We are more divided socially, economically, religiously, and geographically, and the evidence shows up during every news cycle.
Anyone playing with open eyes and an open mind must agree we are watching a seismic upheaval in the very fabric of civil society.
The Founding Fathers could have formed a monarchy. Historians regularly remind us of a movement to draft George Washington as our first king.
But what they did create was a grand experiment of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The only problem was the great diversity of those very people. They were from different cultures, races, socio-economic backgrounds, philosophical and religious backgrounds. The only solution came to be known as pluralism.
Pluralism means many things in our country. It means power is shared by more than one ruling party. It means all have the right to practice their chosen religion. It means those who are different agree to dwell together in unity, despite their diversity.
Clearly, a pluralistic nation promises great freedoms for all, but even more clear are the monumental challenges diversity presents. So what did our founders do about the challenges? They faced them on two fronts.
First, in terms of laws, they laid out a system that promoted unity while protecting the nation from tyranny through the separation of powers.
But secondly, they counted on the character and integrity of the people to act with reasonable self-control and civility when confronted with their differences. Simply put, the laws provided external compulsion, but even more important was an internal, personal system of ethics that flowed from an ancient command to love your neighbor.
Here’s the deal. Diversity without civility breeds anarchy. That’s what we are watching all around us. We’ve been given a front row seat on the banishment of civil discourse starting with our political leaders and flowing all the way down to those protesting in the streets.
No longer is it acceptable to disagree with our opponents. Now it is fine to smear, insult, degrade, slander and vilify them with impunity.
Yes, we prize freedom of speech, and must always fight for the rights that go with it. But just because you can say horrible things about another American doesn’t mean you should.
And just because it makes you feel empowered to fire verbal cannons at an opponent doesn’t mean your words will end up solving any problems.
In fact, those attempting to enhance their power position by destroying people on the other side demonstrate, by their very manner, that they lack the character we most need in those we trust to lead us forward.
I wish Benjamin Franklin and his friends were still with us. But I fear their eyes would well up with tears at the way we’ve messed with their republic.
They would see we’re already hanging, perilously close to falling completely off the precipice, because we’ve allowed cynicism, invective, insults, and hate-filled denunciations to become our national pastime.
Diversity only works when civility is prized. Or, put another way, when a pluralistic nation doesn’t hang together, sooner or later it will be unable to hang on.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” publishes Saturdays in The Signal.